Monthly Archives: January 2023

Belated Weeknote – 29th Jan. Where did all the time go?

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.

Ginormous textile beasts. Who were fabulous company.

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.

How did she remember where the knots went once the balloon had gone?

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:

Sculptures specifically for tactility – that you’re not allowed to touch.

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:

Sculptures specifically for feeling, being hugely enjoyed by people who couldn’t see them.

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.

The sort of nonsense in my ‘voice memos’ app.

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!

Recording the sound of the Thames by Woolwich Arsenal pier.

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.

Keeping moving

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…

Quite tired after getting round in 27’15”. Really need to find a longer running jacket, I realise.

The downside

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.

Next week

  • 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.

Weeknote 20th Jan – Simplification

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.

Weeknowwte 13th Jan – Moving On

Feeling a tad fragile today, it must be said.

Last night a whole bunch of very lovely DIT people got together and said goodbye to me. In a pub. And then after that there were cocktails. And you can see where this is going. But I was so pleased to see everyone, and to hear all the lovely things said about me, and particularly all the individual people who said how I’d helped them over the last four years. As a contractor you have these Mary Poppins moments where you just have to shrink into the background, and there’s been three waves of that this year alone, so it’s doubly wonderful when people take the time. Oh and I was given some lovely presents too.

Bottle of fancy Bollinger champagne, a Dinosaur Comics mug saying "you're doing a good job and your hair looks nice" - a shared reference to former boss Miranda and I - and a large leaving card.
A subset of the lovely things.

I was also able to share some big news with everyone – what I’ll be up to next.

From mid-February, I’m going to be the Head of Profession for Product Management over at GDS. It’s a very similar role to the one I’ve been doing at DIT, combining the people/capability/community side with developing a bit more of a strategic view of each of the various GDS directorates’ plans – to come up with a coherent product strategy and roadmap for the whole organisation.

Moving from 17 to 30 PMs is going to be a new scale of challenge, but I know that lots of the things we’ve put in place at DIT are going to be transferrable. I also know there are some genuinely lovely people I’ll be working with in the new role to try and shape things. And they’ll already have some good stuff in place or ready to go – that probalby just needs me to shepherd along. I’ve got a whole new set of fellow Heads of Profession to get to know and work with, of course. Plus my new boss Neil Warsop seems just excellent and I’m excited to be working with and learning from him.

As at DIT, eventually I’ll be looking for my own permanent replacement. But not for six months at least.

So that’s the big news out of the way.

Elsewhere, it’s been a week of light socialising and there’s not much else to report. I’ve managed to get an hour of piano practice in a day. I’ve watched a lot of BAFTA films. We went to see Punchdrunk’s “The Burnt City” down in Woolwich, which was bewildering and spectacular…and we might need to go and see it again, but having read the actual plays it’s based on beforehand.

But for now, back to endless cups of tea and some light groaning.

Weeknote – 7th Jan 2023 – in which I find it hard to be still

An unusual week. Between the betweens. Not fully stopped, not fully started, not fully anything.

An empty calendar week.

It was my first week of of full-on unemployment. This wasn’t quite the five-day sea of solo serenity I’d imagined back in November, because – of course – lots of people were still off school/work and so the house was really busy at the start of the week.

I hid away and spent a lot of Tuesday on my blogpost about everything-non-DIT that happened in 2022. It’s more about SXSW, MTP and music than anything hugely work-related, but with the looming demise of twitter it felt important to retell the story in one place.

On Wednesday, Vicky was back at work, and so that was my first day of true decompression. I found it incredibly hard to settle to, but was really determined not to just fill the day with random tasks to hide from the mental noise. I had to somehow be still, and try to become bored. This was hugely, HUGELY uncomfortable after so long being in ‘always on’ mode. But I got a lot of meditation done, and well over an hour of piano practice – probably more. In fact, I’ve managed more than an hour most days – but I’ve found I can emerge from those long sessions and back into reality feeling like I’ve not had any time to myself, because I’m in such a flow state that I don’t notice how long I’ve been playing.

I also started my self-assessment and got a really nasty shock about how much I owed HMRC, so Jolly Well Done to my umbrella company’s tax algorithms.

I got near the end of the day and was regretting not having recorded anything much, nor heading out to get daylight/fresh air. After all that time passing without much positive to show for it (and a huge negative) I was feeling pretty miserable, but again decided to ‘just be’ in the boredom and frustration. Oddly I then found myself just feeling instruments. Getting used to their tangibility. That they were for playing, not thinking about. I don’t know quite why, but that seemed to be what was needed.

From there I started doing some tiny bits of tinkering, and then tried to test the vocal recording setup for a technical project I’ve got looming with my friend Victor, and before I knew it there were some little loops going. And then I binned that and did something else – which became a sort of short proto-sea-shanty. I suspect everything with my vocals on ends up being a bit folky, whether I like it or not.

And then I just practiced singing Divine Comedy songs, trying to make sure I was actually hitting all the right notes as per the manuscript, rather than my memory. And this slightly bleak hour somehow became several hours of quite interesting play. Nothing really to show for it other than the time passing, but that’s probably enough?

I then hurried out to the Jazz Café in Camden to see Art of Noise with an old friend:

Men with laptops playing in front of a large video screen
AON legends Gary Langan and JJ Jeczalik centre stage

The gig was just lovely – there was a proper sense of playfulness going on, watching remixes being created live in front of us. I got quite tearful during Backbeat/Beatback – even though there was no Anne Dudley playing that beautiful piano part.

This turned into something of a late night, putting the world to rights. We clearly both needed it. And hey, I didn’t have work in the morning.

Although, sadly, I did have to try and deal with Loki, who needed to go to the vets for an injury on his leg. He wasn’t keen. And I was still pretty hungover.

My poor arm with some big cat-induced scratches in.
These scratches still look pretty gross even three days later. Hurrah for savlon.

He came home later that day, complete with bandaged leg, cone of shame and very disoriented because of the general anaesthetic. We only found out that he would need to be kept indoors once I’d picked him up, so this meant that I had to immediately do a mercy dash to pick up a litter tray/litter before the shops closed. And before toilet-based disaster happened in one of the kids’ rooms. I was getting a lot of stressed text messages about that.

So I’m now £500 lighter. But he’s doing well. And I managed to drown my sorrows over a very fine curry in Buckhurst Hill thanks to the generosity of an old friend.

The piano tuner came round and worked absolute magic on the tone and action of our little baby grand – I don’t know why I didn’t ask him to do it sooner. Probably because I wasn’t playing it enough, or skilled enough, to notice all those little idiosyncracies.

I’ve been learning ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’ from Childrens Corner, alongside many of my other longstanding Debussy projects, and I’ve been reading Stephen Walsh’s biography to ‘Painter in Sound’ to understand a bit more about the man. Suffice to say he seems to be a bit of an arse – but a lot of that feels like it’s potentially down to class and poverty. He came from incredibly humble beginnings, and I wonder if he was just trying to keep up with those around him – so had a slightly grey approach to promises and relationships. He’s quoted as saying “why is everyone allowed to divorce apart from me?” which sounds like another indicator he was used to being looked down upon by those around him. Anyway, here’s Pascal Rogé playing the current piece much better and faster than I can. And I’m enjoying the book – a pleasant change from tracts about Product Management!

I spent a lot of yesterday picking through folders of documentation associated with some of the things I might do next. It was quite draining trying to assemble these vast programmes in my head, and definitely not “taking a break from work”, but I suspect I’m getting close to making my choice. I think it’s going to be a really good move for me, but I’m going to sleep on it over the weekend.

Next week brings breakfast with Rico, the very first PM I ever worked with back at ITV – followed by dropping off the DIT laptop/phone. There’s Punchdrunk’s ‘The Burnt City’ immersive thing about the Trojan wars. Then Thursday is (finally) my leaving drinks. I am incredibly touched by how many people are making the effort to come along to these – from Turkey, Belfast, Cardiff, Eastbourne etc. Thank you in advance, everyone.

Right, back to the music gear…

2022 – And then there was everything else

OK, so that’s four years at DIT very loosely summarised. But it was a busy year in tons of other ways. And it’s mainly captured on twitter, so for the sake of durability, here’s a more narrative recap of all that!

We’re going to talk about

  • South by Southwest
  • Getting more involved with Mind the Product
  • Cultural adventures
  • Self-care
  • Music gear
  • And everything else…


In February I finally got to go to Austin for this epic festival/conference/thing. I remember this being something that friends at the BBC and elsewhere were getting to go while I was head-down on mobile projects at MTV, and I’d hear about things like Twitter being launched. Slightly jealously. But in those days I could never persuade anyone to fund me going.

Thankfully, in 2020 the L&D budget of my very own company had a different view and bought me a platinum pass, just in time for it to get cancelled because of COVID. But two years later I finally made it over. I’d thoroughly recommend getting the “everything” pass if you can run to it – the extra money is a drop in the ocean compared to the hotel bills, and it allows you to dive between so many different worlds. Picking up contexts and ideas you wouldn’t have come across otherwise.

The move to a hybrid event had other benefits, because most things were available to watch on-demand later. This meant there wasn’t the pressure to go and see so many of the Rockstar Keynote sessions – you could amble and be curious, particularly if you had that platinum pass, knowing you’d catch up on the big stuff in downtime. And – as I found out – you’re really going to need downtime. It’s quite overwhelming, and I was very glad of my friend Hilary’s advice to just take every fourth day off and potter in the hotel/go shopping/sightseeing.

But I still loved it. The ability to see so many different things was just fabulous. I could flit between seeing Sandra Bullock and Anne Hathway at premieres, talks about the regeneration of San Paolo’s water system or the creation of new digital entrepreneurship in West Arkansas, or bands you’d kill to see in the UK…playing effectively in somebody’s back garden.

Anne Hathaway and Jared Leto at the Q&A after showing the first episode of WeCrashed. She was delightful – and he was Quite Hard Work. But they also had a truly terrible interviewer.
Real Sandra Bullock at the premiere of the charmingly silly “The Lost City”.
She is just as lovely in real life as you’d hope.
Nova Twins at BBC Introducing – I helped them rescue some drums that were accidentally forgotten by the porter at my hotel after this show. They were very pleased and sweet.

Some particular highlights on the music front:

I got to see Self Esteem playing the self-described “worst gig of my entire life – they had click coming out of front-of-house”. But from about six feet away. “Prioritise Pleasure” was already one of my absolute favourite albums by this point, and regularly brought on light lip-trembling, but I was in absolute floods of tears by the end of even this technically troubled set. Just so moving, and I felt so priveleged to see her that close up.

Self Esteem – at Augustine in Austin, Texas

A few nights later I got to see her doing it all again at the “British Music Academy” – a showcase of British bands put on by BBC Introducting/DIT/BPI etc etc that ran over several nights.

The whole self-esteem band, this time in Sheffield tribute kit.

Self Esteem’s first night was at a little venue called Augustine that was a very charming bar, if eye-wateringly expensive when it came to drinks, and I amused myself by turning up early and making the amazing discovery of Baby Queen.

Bella Latham (for that’s who Baby Queen actually is) was mainly playing to dense pop backing tracks, so the slightly punky picture above is a bit misleading, but she’s basically a slightly-“slacker” Taylor Swift. Really deft songwriting with huge huge layers of irony. For example, “Narcissist” is actually someone in their 20s pointedly raging about the harm that folks my age have done to their mental health. At that stage her biggest hit was basically a paeon to Jodie Comer called “Love Me”, which I think everyone can get behind.

I was totally sold. She’s going to be really big. And I also knew Daisy would love her. Of which more later.

And then I got to finally see amazing Ableton Live-looping genius Rachel K Collier in the flesh. I became one of her patreons during lockdown, and she has been incredible – sharing her own ableton sets, monthly writing challenges etc etc. So it was fabulous to meet her in real life as there’d been no chance to see her previously. The first time was when she closed the night at Patreon’s very own venue.

RKC in full flow, live looping her vocals and keyboard parts to build up the track “Paper Tiger”.

You can see her in action in this video: And there’s some familiar-looking curly hair in the preview thumbnail, I can’t help but notice…

Afterwards she was gushed at by Patreon founder/Pomplamoussist Jack Conte. As Rach was slightly in shock I did a bit of filling in the back story and bigging up the patreon experience while she gathered her breath. But pretty soon she was in her element again.

Rachel K Collier talking to Jack Conte

But this is just a tiny part of what I got up to. There were also amazing sessions about:

  • The semiotics of nuclear waste labelling – how will you convey “this is scary, don’t go further” to beings 10,000 years in the future, given that this didn’t stop people breaking into the pyramids
  • Arthur Brooks talking about reorienting what matters in your life when you get to 50, because continuing to be a striver will just make you disappointed in life. This was a hugely powerful session that I’ll keep coming back to – and his book “From Strength to Strength” is highly recommended (you can read past the faith-based elements quite easily, if – like me – that’s not quite your bag)
  • Professor Laurie Santos talking about happiness (of course), but how her thinking has changed post-pandemic
  • Catherine Price talking about how to have true fun – great talk, but the book feels a little bit hectoring if you’re a massive introvert like me
  • Colossal Bioscience’s attempts to rebuild a mammoth – they showed some really promising results on the gene editing, and also talked about their work on artificial wombs
  • What data science can tell you about long-term changes in traffic patterns in Austin post-pandemic (the mixed news is that there are fewer accidents…but if you’re in one then it’s more likely to be fatal)
  • How VR is changing the gallery experience, for better or worse
  • Mass community science online (with some bloke who used to be in Star Trek)

Plus Neal Stephenson, Jade Bird, Beck, Priya Parker, Brian Eno etc etc. Sadly I didn’t get to have my hair done by Jonathan van Ness, much to my similarly-coiffed boss’s disappointment.

Overall: it was bloody marvellous, exhausting, inspiring and I hope to do it again in 2024 or ’25.

Mind the Product – turning gamekeeper

I’ve long enjoyed this conference and the London ProductTank gatherings. I’ve also massively enjoyed the pub sessions after ProductTank, which handily were in one of my favourite pubs from GDS days – The Enterprise. I’d stay late, chatting to Martin Ericsson, or Randy Silver or Emily Tate about all sorts.

I was utterly delighted when they asked me to get involved in their training programme, and I’ve become one of the regular trainers for their “Communications and Alignment” course. I’ve got to learn a lot more about my own practice from teaching this, and having new problems and perspectives from outside government has been a great way of staying refreshed.

It’s also been a great excuse to tackle the more scholarly side of this – catching up on background reading, finishing (or starting) countless books I’ve bought over the ages, buying the ones I’ve not got round to yet…

I was even more flattered when I was asked to be part of their Leadership training. Firstly because I got to work with amazing Beata Barker as her co-trainer, but also because we got to take twenty product leaders from around the world on a journey together over four weeks. Twice. It’s a curiously emotional experience for all involved, creating a real cohort of fellow travellers through the challenges it brings. It’s incredibly hard work, and takes a lot of preparation, but it’s one of the best things that’s happened to me in the last year.

Going out

It was also quite a big cultural year, even if you ignore SXSW. Here are a few things I got up to…

Lonelady – Cambridge Junction.
One of “Electronic Sound” magazine’s artists of the year in 2021, who’s signed to Warp. Very tight, and she gave a great tour of the whole catalogue – sadly I only knew the most recent album ‘Former Things‘ really well. Amazing guitar playing, and in terrifying heels too. Bit odd that she didn’t say anything to the audience at any point though.

Jane Weaver – Storey’s Field Centre, Cambridge
Another ‘Electronic Sound’ favourite. Some really great musicianship, and she sang some great songs beautifully – the tracks from Flock were particularly great. Much taller than I expected. A slightly subdued crowd, which probably isn’t that suprising given that it was a Monday and at a venue slightly in the middle of nowhere. I’m also not 100% sure she was feeling it in turn, as a result. But I’m really glad I saw her, and would do so again – preferably later in the week and not in such an austere venue.

Cyrano de Bergerac – Harold Pinter Theatre
OMG, this was amazing. James McAvoy repeating a his National Theatre show for a short run – I was so lucky to get tickets for me, Daisy and Vicky. A truly incredible performance, and a wonderful supporting cast too. Really inspired Daisy too. Highly recommend watching online.

Baby Queen – Camden Electric Ballroom
Another chance to see Bella do her thing, but this time with a full band and to the audience size she deserves. It was odd to revisit this venue that I’d probably last gone to over 25 years before. The floor is no longer black and sticky, which is a welcome change. But I was also taking Daisy, and it was really odd to see that sort of gig through her eyes – and remember what it was like back in those days myself.

Daisy got to meet her afterwards, complete with SXSW backstory of how her dad had returned raving about her.

2021 may have been Self Esteem’s year, but this gig fully confirmed that this was my song of 2022 – although I may have overplayed it just a tad by now:

Abba Voyage
I really don’t know quite how to describe this other than to say it was an amazing experience. It’s not exactly a gig – although there’s a live band. It’s not exactly a film – although there’s a huge screen projecting tons of video. It’s more like being in a two-hour magic trick. The way they blur the boundaries between the projections and the room are just incredible – so many different small bit of misdirection contributing to the whole. And I suspect it’s a show that has the ability to get better – that because so much is software they can carry on tweaking the initial “MVP” now they know it’s a hit and have the rolling revenues to pay for it.

It was also a huge treat to see synth whizz Victoria Hesketh (aka Little Boots) playing keyboards and doing vocals in the truly amazing live band.

I went with Vicky and Daisy, plus old friend and Abba fan Steve. As you can see from the photos, we really bloody made the effort didn’t we? (Disclaimer it was really boiling hot that day)

Tom and Steve getting ready to head into the Abba show.
We got told off by the door staff for not trying hard enough.
Although Vic did give me a wave when she saw the t-shirt.

No photos from during the show inside, but look at all these happy faces! Suffice to say that I’m definitely planning on going again.

Happy people post-Abba

Genesis – the O2
This was an evening with an incredibly unexpected twist. I’d originally bought the eye-watering ticket well over a year ago from a reseller, having realised that absolutely nobody wanted to go with me and I’d missed the chance to get them directly while I waited. Then the shows got rescheduled because some of the band/crew caught Covid, and so these were then tacked onto the end of the tour.

Which meant – as it turned out – that I got to see Genesis playing live together for the very last time ever.

Tony Banks – my absolute musical hero when I was a (rather odd) teenager.

The visuals were incredible, the music was brilliant (if you like that sort of thing), and there were moments when the vocals were great too. There were places where Phil was a bit all over the place as well, but the good definitely outshone the bad. And what a night to have been there.

Divine Comedy – Retrospective at the Barbican
Another covid-delayed treat – the Divine Comedy celebrating thirty years of making music by playing all of their albums in chronological order. Vicky and I initially got tickets for the first night – where he was playing “Liberation” and “Promenade”.

Divine Comedy’s setup for the first night at the Barbican

The above is the only photo I took of the first night. Those albums mean so much to us both, we just wanted to be in the moment. I wept several times, and “Lucy” was just as beautiful as ever. Lots of lovely encores from more recent records too.

We were also lucky enough to benefit from our friend Des’s planning ahead on the second night – he’d bought tickets for his wife and daughter to go ‘just in case’. Only they weren’t that fussed, so Vicky and I got to go along again to see “Casanova” and “Short Album about Love”. Which were just brilliant, but the shows had a very different vibe that night – these two albums were much more popular and the audience felt broader in comparison. More chatting and ‘general gig going’ people compared to the hardcore crowd on night one.

I went to see Alex Jennings be brilliant in The Southbury Child at the Bridge Theatre; I got to see a performance of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto with Abba-friend Steve in the orchestra playing percussion; I also got to see some silly modern-prog-rock in the form of Frost* supported by old friends Quantum Pig.

Frost* are probably playing in 7/8 at this point. And why not.

I also went to loads of lovely talks organised by the Wanstead Fringe or at local venue The Wanstead Tap. I got to see so many lovely speakers, ranging from Marina Hyde, Rory Cellan-Jones, Ian Dunt, and Adrian Chiles all the way through to local psychogeographer John Rogers and Wanstead House historian Hannah Armstrong. And we managed to squeeze in two whole sessions of Robin Ince’s “Nine Lessons…” at Kings Place, seeing a huge range of comedy, science and music – including lovely friend Ben Moor.

Adrian Chiles talking to Wanstead Tap owner Dan Clapton about the benefits of drinking slightly less.

Looking after myself

I started running a lot more, and managed to lose nearly a stone by eating a bit less. I started going to the osteopath more regularly to sort out my stupid posture. I found an amazing podiatrist who gave me exercises that have helped fix my flat feet and help me regain arches.

Of course I then got cocky, and picked up a stupid tendon injury in September from pushing myself too hard. This was still causing me trouble into December, so I’ve only just started running again now. Thankfully the weight didn’t pile back on, and the times I’m doing now I’m running again aren’t as bad as I feared.

I also realised my world had got a bit small and over-focused on too few things due to work, so I started piano lessons again, to try and get me a bit more out of my head and into other areas of progress – that has been going brilliantly.

I also improved my diet and can bore people about gut bacteria. But let’s not go into that here.

The Ever-expanding Modular Habit

This wasn’t as big a year of acquisition as I first thought (feared?) it was – it turns out there was an absolute ton of eBay purchases at the very tail end of 2021, but the blatant shame clearly hung around for much longer. However I did buy considerably more rackspace so I could keep everything out in the rig at once, so the whole setup certainly feels bigger.

Of course I still need to take the time to get to properly know much of the gear bought in 21′, but there were a few nice 2022 purchases that I’m looking forward to getting stuck into. Anyway, I still maintain that this has been my small part in stimulating the economy – or at least the small part of it based in Stokes Croft, down in Bristol.

  • Expert Sleepers Lorelei – this is a rather curious little oscillator module that makes sounds unlike anything else, particularly when you’re using the ‘x-mod’ option that kind of “masks” the oscillator based on an external signal. You end up with almost ‘sync’ sounds – but something still quite different. It sounds particularly good when put through…
  • Mannequins ‘Three Sisters’ – a linked set of three (very good) filters that you can use to create vocal sounds in forman mode, or do all sorts of fascinating sweeps. Everything sounds good through this, and it comes alive in all sorts of interesting ways when you start mutating it through other things
  • Mutable Instruments Marbles – a random trigger/voltage souce that I’ve ended up putting into almost everything. Like a turbocharged Turing Machine, it just brings all sorts of stuff to life
  • ADDAC Intuitive Quantiser – a lovely little box that takes four signals and maps them to any musical scale you set on the front panel. I’m slowly getting more into using this in performance mode – actually changing keys, to create more shape on generative aspects of the music
  • VPME.DE quad voice drum expander – makes my go-to drums module even more flexible and useful. I suspect. The manual’s…opaque. A January project, for sure.
  • Mordax Data – an amazing oscilloscope thing so you can see what’s going on in your rack. This is going to be so useful for understanding everything else. We are going to have a lot of fun together!
Mordax Data, Marbles and the ADDAC quantiser.
You can just see the top of QEx and Lorelei under Marbles as well.

And the rest of it…

Ilfracombe, where the lumpy journey of rebuilding began
  • Daisy’s gone off to UEA, and Milo’s started in sixth form – so the rhythm of the house is very different.
  • We are now a two-car house, so Daisy’s got something to practice in when she’s home. I feel a bit odd about this wanton luxury.
  • We had a truly lovely and luxurious holiday in Ilfracombe, where I realised that a load of things in life had got quite badly out of balance and I needed to deal with some quite enormous emotional and work burnout – I’ve mentioned this above already.
  • Aside from things like taking up the piano again, a bit more meditation, and spending a lot more time ‘being in the moment’ with my family, this precipitated lots of little random changes, like deciding I’d had enough of my two standard smells: Paul Smith for Men (weekend) and Tom Ford Black Orchid (weekday). They served me well for over a decade, but it’s time for something different. I’ve now got a terrifying and shameful Penhaligons habit, thanks to Mark O’Neill.
  • (Oh, and I’m doing a lot better now. But this January is definitely going to help even more.)
  • And, hugely sadly, we lost Vicky’s mum after a long illness. We’ll remember her as she used to be – she was just ace.

So it’s been quite a year. I’m hoping for some similar highs in 2023, but could do without quite so many of the lows.

DIT – a look back

(This is a heavily edited version of an internal email sent to the people I worked with in our Digital, Data and Technology team. I’ve tried to make it generally applicable, and nothing personal or ‘official’ should still be in here, but – former colleagues – please let me know if syou spot anything that needs an urgent tweak! There’s also another post coming shortly about *everything else* I got up to in just 2022, because there was no shortage of that either!)

Goodness – nearly four years have flown by. It seems just moments ago that I first arrived at Windsor House to be the first Product Lead for Data Hub – an internal core-CRM platform with a name I never managed to improve. Ironically this was also the project that ended my time at DIT, but it’s fair to say that things changed Quite A Bit since then.

As an Agile/Lean/Product person I was obviously quite keen to understand our work-in-progress. Not least because whenever teams got together to talk about the roadmap everyone seemed really busy, but there didn’t seen to be a ton of meaningful progress being made. To get to the bottom of this I declared a “secret project amnesty” and one of our PMs admitted to 23 side problems he’d been given to look after! As I leave DIT, everyone still feels we’re trying to do too much with too few people – but it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come. 

There was also new management to worry about – the person that had hired me was suddenly leaving, and someone called Sian Thomas was apparently taking over as Chief Data Officer. We also found out we had three weeks to present a new vision for Data Hub, to some big senior management committee that neither of us had heard of or understood, even though she’d not even left her job at Food Standards Agency yet.

Thankfully this Sian person turned out to be an amazing colleague and leader – something that’s just been recognised when she was deservedly awarded an MBE for her services to trade, investment and cross-government data standards. I’m feeling like I need to try a bit harder!

I realised my role was just as much a delivery lead as product lead, and together we started to tackle some of the systemic problems we could see, trying to redesign our ceremonies and rituals to encourage the behaviours we thought we needed. We put in fortnightly checkins where we asked about team health – something of a novelty. We introduced a cross-team wallwalk that was focused on knowledge-sharing. We moved to show-and-tells that were about individual teams ‘showing the thing’ rather than contributing to a big slide deck full of progress updates. We got our fortnightly release cycle up off the floor (it was multi-release per day by the time I left DIT). We slowly took the teams on the journey to meaningful OKRs. We got to introduce and celebrate better product practice – even supporting the legendary ‘Flintstone car’ wizard-of-oz service for matching our existing company records Dun&Bradstreet data; this initially ran for an hour a day through a PM’s inbox, who’d then make the API calls by hand, allowing us to really rapidly iterate the frontend to improve effectiveness and success without rebuilding all of the backend every time we made a mistake. Proper product management!

A large whiteboard wall covered with post-it notes and printouts.
The Data Wall – an internally-highly-public roadmap of all our mission teams, their OKRs, what’s shipped, and a now/next/later roadmap for each in columns. Top left is ‘The Vision’, and a big reminder of the weekly ritual – the questions each team was expected to answer before they could get into ‘being busy’.

Everyone did sooooo well changing their ways of working, talking to each other, reducing duplication, and becoming more usefully focused on impact. I was really proud of all the teams. But a civil servant successor had been found, and I spent a few months handing over to her.

I was sent back to the shopfloor of shipping things, to look after two vast and scary services called ‘Check How to Export Goods‘, and ‘Trade with the UK‘. These databases of tariffs and other guidance had previously been provided by the EU, and MVPs had been created in time for one of our potential exit dates – but never launched. My job was to try and understand the real user needs, and get them updated before 31st December (this is when we were expecting to sign our deal with the EU around September, so I’d have ages to process the data).

Of course this was just in time for lockdown, and suddenly – like all of us – I was finding I was creating a roadmap on the last spare bit of wall in the studio!

A roadmap made of different sized postits
How I did brexit.

I’m still amazed at how much everybody achieved during those times of huge challenge and change, with almost vertical learning curves around data and context, and a political environment that wasn’t short on complications. Everyone worked so hard, and supported each other so brilliantly. Kate, Kevin, Nick, Tom, Andrzej, Abigail – thank you all.

We also did properly user-centred policy in places: I was presenting UR findings in trade negotiations, and to the cross-government team that were trying to explain the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The team then did a great alpha for an improved service based on the CHEG data, which I hope will still see the light of day once it’s the right priority given everything else that’s going on. I’ll always be happy to come back and re-explain, of course. But then it was time for me to move on once more.

I’d been asked to take on a role as Head of Product in the last days of our Brexit work, and this became ever more critical as we started to move to a matrix structure. I was really excited by the idea of trying to fix the way we did line management, to try and make sure our people were developing properly and given the right challenges. But on a more practical note, a lot of staff left after EU Exit/the launch of the GREAT ‘learn to export’ platforming, so initially it was just about crewing up. I had to create new product recruitment materials, iterate the cross-government capability framework to reflect the product discovery skills DIT needed (rather than the more old-skool approaches in the big operational departments), and get a ton of new people in – initially mainly contractors. I also had to do quite a lot of juggling what we were even working *on*. It turned out that lots of people had differing ideas about what had been promised, and who got to decide, so making sense of what was going on across the whole of DDaT became almost a full-time job.

Thankfully I had a new partner in crime – Miranda Savage, who’d taken over the Chief Digital Officer role on an interim basis. I’d never even met her before because she’d joined during COVID times, but this unexpectedly turned out to be one of the most fulfilling working relationships I’ve had in my career. Miranda is a natural product leader, but with huge empathy for the people side of the job. There were definitely times when it was like we were separated at birth, give or take twenty years, but we had just enough points of difference that we quickly became soooo much more than the sum of our parts.

Together we got the product community up and running, got the capability framework signed off, collectively tried out techniques like Opportunity Solution Trees, put in quarterly prioritisation processes we needed for the time, and kept on iterating how we planned and scheduled work – and fixed some of the systemic challenges that were repeatedly causing teams to get stuck. We were able to properly sort out line management and L&D. I also got to learn some amazing ways of seeing the organisation as a system from her.

I could do a whole blogpost series just about our work together. Or maybe an album. Or perhaps we’ll get back together in a decade and write a business book about it all.

She also had the incredible ability to track down quite amazing cocktails. Even in Cardiff. One of the very many things I will miss. Thank you Mrs S.

A table full of cocktails and other drinks
This was a London Dry. Miranda’s cucumber-based concoction is just to the right. Astute observers of us as a pair will be unsuprised that we then ordered each other’s drink for our second round. 🙂

Of course ‘fixing recruitment’ also involved replacing myself, and after one failed attempt we were lucky enough to bring in the amazing Matt Jukes to take over in my stead. I know I leave things in really safe hands with him, and I’m really grateful that he applied, stuck with it through the security clearance process, and was so sensitive to my feelings when letting go of my baby. His marking of the “formal handover of the product community” was done with huge care, kindness and respect. Thank you Matt.

(Similarly, huge shout outs to my fellow “Delivery and Product Leadership” colleagues – I’m really going to miss The Best Meeting Of The Week, but I know you’ll all be fine. And you all know where to find me if you need a coffee and chat.)

Finally I ended up back where I started, on a “special project” in case I was needed post-handover, in this case worrying about (once again) what to do with Data Hub and how to reframe it as part of a wider CRM ecosystem. I’ve already written a little bit about that product strategy work elsewhere on this blog.

But now I’m done. It’s the 1st Jan and I’m no longer even under contract.

Once again, thank you everyone at DIT. You’re some of the most dedicated and creative people I’ve worked with, and I’ve learned loads from every one of you. Carry on being amazing.

(And please keep an eye on their jobs page if you want somewhere fascinating to work)