Weeknote – 21st April – Mainly Taylor

Paper sticky label saying "Defective when received"
I mean, we’ve all felt this, right? I don’t need it from the people doing the ironing too.

Hello again. So it seems this blog is now popular enough to start getting spam, and the inbox has had a whole new layer of noise this week as a result. Not exactly sure why, but hello to our new bot overlords. And any new readers, of course – although I can only apologise in advance.

One of the biggest new areas for improbable promotional linkbuilding was an article from July last year about my day at Marty Cagan’s “Transformed” workshop. It’s also been getting quite a lot of traffic from the US. So if you’ve not read it yet, perhaps it’s worth a look?

Anyway, what’s been going on?

Work Stuff

Lots of thinking about our Data Strategy this week. We’re about to commit to some big SaaS purchases (plus some people to start making it real), but that also means trying to work out what our first moves would be in practice. Out of all the possible options that everyone’s talked about ever. And all the possible risks we need to tackle.

It’s a classic Product Management challenge – we want to prove/show that it’s a valuable area for continued investment – but the simplest first moves to keep senior stakeholders excited/bought in involve sidestepping a few of the biggest technical challenges. Is that a smart decision, or creating false confidence? How do we proactively radiate the remaining uncertainty, while also showing complete competence? (e.g. should our testing include zero-party data and consent around it? Registered users rather than cookies? The transition between the two?) Lots to pick through as a group.

One of the fascinating upsides of the gatherings around this was the discovery of an unspoken conceptual gap between the product teams and marketing in how all of this work was going to be applied. During a workshop I spotted a workstream taking an unexpected direction in a Miro board, but decided to sit on my hands to see where my colleagues took it, and found we’re both thinking about “member retention” utterly differently. It’s odd realising that we’re both in the world of “when all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail”. Yes, they were making some slightly partial-world-view suggestions, but also the thing I’d assumed the workshop would coalesce on was similarly incomplete. It’s turned into an interesting opportunity to learn a lot more about each other’s perspectives – and we’ve got some meetings next week to kick things about further. A reminder: if in doubt, listen more and say less. If not in doubt, why not?

Elsewhere the product team’s increased transparency about our work is showing some good results, but also throwing up the right sorts of interesting questions. We’ve made our ongoing security maintenance work a lot less intangible, to show the value of where “30% maintenance time” goes. On the other thand our Data Protection folks looked through the checkin decks and got a bit spooked by some of our discovery and exploration about personalisation; I needed to reassure them that things were fine because no actual persons were involved yet. In a lot of ways this is the process working utterly as intended – they knew enough about what was going on to tentatively sound the alarm – but also I realise it’s yet another thing I need to industrialise so the nuance doesn’t rely on my and my own highly-tuned post-government spidey-senses about PII.

Had my first proper “line managers meeting” this week – which might seem odd after three months, but there hadn’t been a particular thing to coalesce around until now. It would have been a meeting for the sake of it, when most things until that point really could have been an email or Slack message. But with the right catalyst it was a good chat; some useful perspectives were shared, and we’re going to keep meeting fortnightly to make progress on some of the bigger gaps we all talked about.

Tuf Gavaz – the Head of Product at John Lewis – came to speak at our All Hands meeting, and had a lovely story about Growth. In the chats afterwards I managed to come up with a good next step for an idea that’s been kicking around the organisation for a few years, and brought various people together to chat it through face-to-face, so that was handy.

But I also had an odd reminder that – while we spend a lot of time worrying about subscriber numbers and member retention – that work mainly exists to fund a really important charity.

Many many years ago I worked for an oil distribution company that got bought and rebought, and eventually ended up as part of BP…as did the tiny pension I built up during the few years I was there. But this means I still get occasional letters from the trustees – and here they are saying that we’re the best place to go if you want to find out more about scams:

A letter from BP Pensions, directing people to Which?'s scam alert service.

Perhaps this is them offloading their own responsibilities onto us, but it shows there’s an important gap that needs to be filled. And – thanks to our endless fretting about user journeys and value for subscribers – we’re one of the organisations filling it.

Work-adjacent things

Found out that the slides from my old 2004 talk “Shit I’m a Manager” are still being circulated and found useful after all this time. Perhaps you might find it helpful too? (Please ignore the domain name – I was working in interactive entertainment and it all made some kind of sense back at the time.)

Had a really good catchup with some of the folks I’m talking on a panel with next week. Funny how we all had a bit of impostor syndrome with each other – but then we probably wouldn’t be Product People otherwise, would we? Embracing the doubt and uncertainty runs deep.

There was also a lovely (if compact) Product in the Aether session with some old, and a few new faces. Numbers were down (because a zapier integration had broken), but that also meant a few other interesting topics cropped up.

Obligatory bit about the new Taylor Swift album

I had a day off on Friday, and accidentally it turned out to be the day ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ arrived in the post. So that did slightly take over everything.

The LP of "The Tortured Poets Department", lying on top of the cardboard packaging it arrived in.

My first impressions varied, much like many others. Initial take was: yes, there’s some great songs on it, but a few bits that feel slightly on-the-nose. Disappointingly clich├ęd lyrics in a couple of places. Production is very detailed but perhaps a bit too smooth. Not enough bangers. And bloody hell those are some poky song titles!

(Obviously the album packaging is just BEAUTIFUL, being a vast book with all the lyrics in and tons of photos. The white vinyl helps complete the overall vibe. But that’s pointless if the music isn’t up to it.)

Things got a bit more interesting on further listens.

Firstly I realised I was going to have to ration my time with the album. It’s incredibly, incredibly sad, and it’s hard not to have that rub off on you. I was reminded of Radiohead’s “OK Computer” or “Kid A”, which are objectively great records…but can leave you in a pretty dark place at the end. As she said, it’s about a moment in time that was both sensational and sorrowful in equal measure, and that really comes through. Particularly as it’s also a massive grower, and gets wittier as it unfolds. I particular this series of lines from “I can do this with a broken heart”:

I’m so depressed I act like it’s my birthday
every day
I’m so obsessed with him, but he avoids me

like a plague
I cry a lot, but I am so productive,

it’s an art
You know you’re good when you can even do it with a broken heart

The other thing that keeps coming through, across songs like ‘The smallest man who ever lived’ was best summed up by something my daughter said. “They were only together for a month. What did Matty Healy do?” We eventually decided the answer was “being Matty Healy”. Ho hum.

Wishing you well Tay.

She also released the video for Fortnight, which she directed. It’s utterly rammed with Easter Eggs – typewriter keyboards with no “1”, blank spaces, etc etc. So I now have to admit that, as well as being a better songwriter than I’ll ever be, she’d also have been a better ARG designer than I ever was. Sigh.

Other Music Bits

Alongside the TS shenanigans, I had a few loose ends of work plus wanted to make some music. But I badly needed it to not feel remotely like “being at work”. So I decided that the rule was “no computer screens”. The work bits were done quickly on printouts, for typing in on Monday, and I threw myself into modular mucking around – linking up the drum machine and the sequencer and countless other bits – but all entirely in the analogue domain.

A large modular synthesiser, spread across two major physical units, connected to a Roland drum machine, with a lot of coloured cables between the various sections.

I had a lot of fun making 3 filter modules do things they shouldn’t have done. I also gave myself some terrible earworms, which were handy for removing the sadder TS songs, and even lightly impressed the daughter.

Piano restarted too, and my attempts at grappling Grieg’s “Arietta” into shape appear to have paid off. Lots more to do, but from Seb’s reaction I’d clearly done OK over the Easter holidays. We’re trying to work out where to go next – making progress on these miniatures is very rewarding, but I also need to build up some chunky stuff to work on over the summer. It might be time to revisit Dr Gradus or Rachmaninov’s C#m prelude, but there’s plenty of time to think about that.

Elsewhere: (i.e. stuff that would have been on Twitter)

As a family we’ve been making the most of the daughter’s last week before she headed off back to university. This includes playing some of our favourite boardgames together, in particular a ‘comfort game’ from early days of lockdown: the fabulous “Just One“.

It has the premise that everyone has to provide a unique hint to help the current player guess a secret word. Any duplicates are removed, so the pressure is on to find the right balance of helpful and individual. Now we are older, it’s got considerably more oblique at times…

A plastic sign used in the boardgame "just one" as a little whiteboard, with the word "cocklice" written on it.

Even Finn was getting in on the trying to make the most of every last moment:

Finn the cat, sitting on top of a jigsaw in progress.

Former colleague Sian ran the London Marathon today, and you should belatedly sponsor her if you can spare a few quid.

Bluebells

Also:

  • the bluebells in Wanstead Park are gorgeous, but probably only have a few days left this year
  • a fabulous meal with friends, based round some eye-wateringly expensive roast beef from the Ginger Pig.
  • Some lovely walks around Norwich.
  • Some new social plans made.
  • Progress on revisiting Ratchet&Clank: A Rift Apart.
  • And much more. No wonder I’m knackered!

Hell, that’ll do for now. It’s nearly Monday. Have a good week everyone.

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