Belated Weeknote – 25th Feb-ish – Overcoming Light Harumph

The top of an amaryllis bulb, with a new flower bud just starting to peek out from the old brown leaves.
Amaryllis two is on the way.

This has been in draft for the last few days, and I’ve just not had time to wrap it up until now. Low on work stuff, heavy on many flavours of ‘everything else’. LinkedIn folks seeking Hot Product Takes: you may want to skip this one. Be reassured that things picked up a bit from Monday, but that’s for a different weeknote!

It’s been a bit of an odd week. I was still not remotely myself after the visit to the now-empty house in Saltdean last weekend, and ended up taking Monday off at the last minute. I just wasn’t in the zone for doing sensible work, or anything else really. Spent the day pottering, staring, and eventually having a bit of a vocal jam with myself in Ableton…that the world really doesn’t need to hear.

I ended up slightly on a back foot for the rest of the week as a result. It wasn’t helped that on Tuesday I had 11 30-minute meetings – argh. I briefly broke the 100-browser-tabs milestone on Thursday, but managed to get down to a single window open by Friday. With a lot of tabs still, but at least you could count them. Hopefully I didn’t close anything too crucial en route. After a certain point, Miro boards start to look pretty similar, and you lose track of whether this is the last or second-last of the duplicate tabs for the same document. (I must admit this is one of the VERY few things I miss about office – there were different contexts for different types of documents, rather than just an unstructured soup of stuff in the browser – but it’s not enough to convince me to go back.)

I’ve started to get involved in some of next year’s business planning processes. Not as a recipient, but as a process-creator, which is rather exciting. Which? works on a very iterative planning approach with a few year-long organisational OKRs, which help shape some aspects of the teams work – it’s how they set their quarterly product OKRs. There’s loads of good stuff already in place, but I’m looking for a) how we can bring in the bottom-up alongside the top-down, b) how we can do more/better choosing-between, c) how we can make space for continous improvement without it being an unaccountable blank cheque.

I got a chance to share this wonderful video from the “Systemic Agility” webinar series, where the former CFO of Statoil talks about his ideas around “Beyond Budgeting”. I really really ought to get his book, and even read it, but…too many books already. Anyway, the folks I shared it with found it interesting – perhaps you will too?

Why future financial forecasting shouldn’t be run the same way as retrospective financial reporting.

All my wanging-on about amazing OKR-setting duly got put to the test, because I found out I was due to present on mid-quarter progress on Tuesday 27th (yes, you’ll have to find out how it went in the next one)…which involved having to track down loads of updates from teams/squads, many of whom were off on leave for half term.

I realised in the process that I don’t yet have a real grammar for “this is not lovely coaching advisory Tom sharing interesting stuff/perspective, this is Tom telling people He Needs a Thing to Happen” in our various comms channels. We’re mainly Slack-based, but Slack is mainly chatty for folks to catch up on in their own time. It’s easy to miss something. But if nobody really looks at email day-to-day either…

Anyway, we collectively pulled it off, but I’ve got to work out how I’m going to be clearer on that in the future. All tips welcome in comments.

You may remember my photo of the meeting-room screen with the peak-Which? booking for ‘cordless drill testing’ from a few weeks ago. This week I finally got to meet a few of the team who organise our product testing, and manage the vast reams of data created as a result, on the back of an idle corridor question while thinking about ROI: “how much does each review cost?” I probably never should have started that ball rolling.

The answer, of course, is “it depends”. But I had a lovely chat with the very delightful people who manage it, and are creating the new data architecture supporting everything. I even got to spend some time talking to the person who’s in charge of mattress testing, who has nearly 100 in her remit! (She also told me something super cool about forthcoming duvet testing, but I’m not going to spoil any social media surprises they may have lined up). It’s interesting too that one of the challenges we have is – because we will nearly-always only buy and test real stuff bought in the shops, rather than preview models – it takes us comparative ages to provide reviews. They’re thorough, but not quick. A sensible and considered, but very anti-dopamine, approach – which I find almost alien, of course.

Anyway, stresses around comms and reporting aside, it’s all been going pretty well with the day job.

Elsewhere in professional shenanigans…

Scott posted on LinkedIn that he was setting up a WhatsApp group for Product Leaders in the public sector. There were a bunch of ‘supplier’ people putting their hands up alongside the civil servants – including Scott himself – and I was briefly “yes, I can provide tea and sympathy here”. And then I had second thoughts. Yes, I’m definitely in a mode where I’m taking some time away from government, but perhaps government also needs a bit of time away from me? Perhaps me chucking in more reckons from the sidelines isn’t actually that helpful, however well-meaning? Still pondering that one.

I also ended up back in GDS-land on Thursday, saying a fond farewell to amazing Technical Architect Mateusz who’s also taking a break from Government. I’ve known Mat for about a decade now, I realise – across MOJ, DIT and GDS. He’s fab, if occasionally very fast-speaking, and if you need clever TA-ing done you should totally hire him.

Which brings me to…

Leisure/Culture Corner

Steve and I had to hotfoot our way from Mat’s leaving drinks over to Hackney Wick to go and see Craven Faults playing live. He is super-secretive about who he is (although apparently he was in a clut post-punk band in the very late 70s, and some big band in the 80s) so there were strict instructions about no photography. Which I’m interpreting as “don’t share any photos you took that actually featured him, on the internet”. Anyway, the star of the show was the instrument he performed on for over an hour…

Enormous moog modular synthesiser, covered in patch cables. A mixing desk. A reel-to-reel tape recorder.
BLOODY HELL

I dread to think how much this vast Moog modular system must have cost – and it was only one of the exotic analogue instruments being used. The fairly-portable ones that create radiophonic-style effects were whisked offstage almost immediately.

But it was an incredible performance – sedate, but still visceral and fascinating. You can hear a clip of one of the pieces he played here:

I’m still no wiser as to who he is, after an hour watching him. For a brief period I was convinced he was Graham Massey of 808 state, but I don’t think that can be true. He’s also an artist, and it turns out the “posters” you could buy at the merch stand were individually screen-printed by him for this particular event. I have number 18 out of 50!

Craven Faults concert poster - pinned out on a wooden floor
Yes, ignore how I’m holding it down, thanks.

Spent a good chunk of Friday and Saturday night watching comforting Ealing Comedies with the firstborn, to ready her for a return to university after reading week. When I last tried about four years ago, we’d not got more than 15 minutes into “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, but she totally loved it this time. Joan Greenwood is just so wonderfully wicked, and the many Alec Guinness characters are just so beautifully constructed. (Bless her, it wasn’t until afterwards she said “that actor looks really familiar” and we said “yes, Star Wars” to much facepalming).

We also watched “Man in the White Suit” as we were in a bit of a Greenwood/Guiness zone by then – and it’s actually stood up really well. Reminds me a lot of the current AI debates, and what businesses will do to avoid being disrupted. But with good jokes. Heartily recommend.

Cooking-twitter is dead, much like the rest of twitter, so sadly you only get the before and after of 2.5h of making braised cabbage.

A saucepan with red cabbage, onions, butter, cinnamon, sugar and more, just before cooking.
Before
A saucepan with a small amount of homogenous slow-cooked red cabbage in it.
After

It tasted delicious, but I’m not 100% convinced it was worth 2.5h of simmering and the house smelling like a brasserie for the next two days.

I was considering posting about how cleverly the labels are attached in the new Diesel boxer shorts, so they don’t endlessly scratch you, but you’ll have to take my word for it. And not peek.

Finally, the first Amaryllis is now going great guns. Not quite sure why it’s got the mottling on the stalk that makes it look like asparagus, but hey. However, whenever I see vegetation growing this incredibly quickly I’m always reminded of Richard Feynman’s observation that we think of plants as growing out of the ground, when really they grow out of the air.

A slightly rude-looking amaryllis flower stem, with a large bud on top. Sitting on a windowsill with a garden behind.
Look how much it’s grown since last week. And still so suggestively too!

But in general, despite my glum start to the week, Spring is definitely coming, and nature is getting more visible again. Just look at this guy that I saw on the way to the studio the other night:

A tiny frog, on a paving slab next to grass, bathed in torchlight at 11pm.
Hello tiny frog!

Weeknote – 18th Feb – Burgeoning (but also bolstering)

For various reasons, a slightly shorter and bleaker weeknote than usual. But in the meantime, behold my comedy amaryllis!

Nope, I’ve got no reason why it’s developed a bend, either. Or the slight ‘asparagus’ vibes on the stem.

Work-related bits

Lots of stuff going on at work, and although it’s still pretty overwhelming I do think I’m starting to make progress. I’ve got a ton of things I could get involved in, but sometimes I have to let things play their course.

Had some great chats with our business planning people about better use of OKRs as a mindset and process rather than an artefact…and also the difference between business KRs and product KRs.

I also spent a lovely half hour with the person that runs our PMO, who seems utterly decent, but it’s taken six weeks to meet because diaries. We talked a lot about traditional and agile project/product management being a spectrum, and the binary division being sometimes unhelpful. (I’ve worked on some flawlessly executed projects that it turned out no users wanted; I’ve also seen some brilliantly reactive “waterfall” projects; and I’ve seen too many user researchers being accidentally used as business analysts.) We also talked a little about how one downside of agile practices is that it’s far too easy to accidentally start a workstream, and particularly one that’s bigger than you think or doesn’t have enough context or governance around it. My own take is that project initiation in the agile world ought to be taken just as seriously as in the PRINCE2 setup…and rarely is. (Too often I’ve seen teams getting critical emails or slide-decks about five weeks into their work, when they’re already committed to an approach. Or a big business-change assumption turns out to have been ‘obvious’.)

Both of those discussions feel like a chance to really move the governance on our work forward. And, as ever in the new workplace, everyone remains pretty damn lovely.

The teams are all settling into their new OKRs, and as we walk them more in practice I’m getting wiser too. Some of my balancing metrics may be more important than I first thought – even if it’s slightly by accident.

Had a good chat about one new project where we talked about the constraints of the alpha phase through the lens of “a hierarchy of terrible outcomes” – top of which was “we run out of time and are in the same position next year”, but also included “we spend so long agonising about the best solution we should have just chosen the most expensive one anyway”.

I also enjoyed a chat about how we might make some of the slightly-ineffable work behind some of our SEO work a bit more tangible. Nobody on the outside knows how Google’s algorithms work, of course, but it was good being able to turn some of it into hypotheses about what might happen. “Doing [this thing], which people ranking above us are seen to do, could increase our traffic by x%, which might mean y% extra traffic and z% more subscriptions/happier members” is easier to reason with than “best practice. Framing the bet means we can make decisions; not framing it at all means it’s easy to ignore.

I’m starting to look further forward too, for which I feel a bit guilty. The teams have only just fully settled on this quarter’s OKRs (although the direction of travel has been largely consistent), but next week I’m going to have to ask teams to a) report on how they’re doing so far, b) think about plans for the next quarter.

Of course there are actually two layers to the latter. Firstly, what are the engineering side of the team planning to deliver as fully-working code. But also, what experiments are we planning to run in the next quarter to work out what we should build in the quarter after…and to decide if it’s more important than fixing some expensive bits of tech-debt. We’re not quite ready for the “test a hundred ideas this quarter, properly build the top three next quarter”, but I think we’ll start to get there.

Also starting to think about how we handle unplanned work. There’s an entirely reasonable current-affairs-based initiative that’s landed on my desk, but I think it’s too big for side-of-desk for any of the squads…so collectively we have to decide if it’s worth “breaking the sprint” (well, quarter) to adapt to this, if we can wait until the next quarter, or which squad’s KRs matter least.

Miscellany:

  • Been doing a lot of thinking about data and consent and a roadmap to better personalisation/recommendations, but only have questions at this stage.
  • Had a few “I hear you’re thinking the same thing that I’m thinking” DMs – which may be collective delusion, of course.
  • Spent some time with our finance folks talking about ROI on our work. They seem much more than traditional finance people – and we talked about modelling some interesting tradeoffs.
  • Great 5h workshop organised by one of our lead PMs about improving member experience, with some incredibly compelling user insight. As ever, I spotted a better way to tell the story. Can’t remember if I had any ideas of my own.
  • Took part in a really good, well-designed, workshop with selected fellow ELT folk about our 2030 vision. Cited the insight from the workshop above. Also did quite a lot of thinking about Which?’s role in an increasingly “as a service” based world. I may have been quite dystopian in places, and I’m hoping none of the related ideas will ever be needed in practice.

Real Life

Let’s get the trivia out of the way first:

  • Piano’s going pretty well at the moment. I’m getting much more focused, and making a bit more progress on underlying problems. And perhaps starting to build my mental muscles for remembering longer-term musical development.
  • That lovely Roland TR8-S remains enormous fun. I love that you can write a bunch of loops one night, and then come back to perform them better another night. It’s wonderfully improvisational.
  • Met an old school friend for dinner mid-week and we set the world to rights
  • OMG after just over two years my ISA’s finally breaking even again! Still hasn’t recouped any of the lost interest that some unwise fiscal choices/Ukraine may have wreaked, but at least I’m not resenting the lost money (and the people that were involved in losing it) any more.
  • Garden’s starting to kick into life again, which is lovely in some places…and terrifying in others.

Former-colleague Talke shared a fascinating podcast from the FT about remote working and return-to-office. I shared the guest from PwC’s concern about how AI is likely to start chipping away at “early learning jobs” where junior staff can start to pick up principles and ways of working…but I’m not sure their solution of pair-working with senior colleagues is scaleable. I’m also not sure that wider industry has trained managers to be this kind of teacher and coach, nor worked out how to enforce it rather than allowing command-and-control(-and-rot) remain the default. Management remains widely not-quite-good-enough, and now we’re adding new touchy-feely layers to it. I’m not sure this is going to universally end well. Anyway, the podcast is worth a listen. I also liked the episode about managers as shit-fixers, and how most management is additive (creating new processes and friction) rather than about removing friction that’s no longer pulling its weight. An unexpected “subscribe”, and generally nice and short too!

Loved this mural that Kate Leto found on her travels around London last week:

Mural says "I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being".

(Deep breath)

And yes, this weekend Vicky and I headed down to Brighton to go and look at a partly-empty and very cold house where two very warm and larger-than-life people used to live.

We retrieved some family heirlooms, and did a few other essential tasks that needed to be ticked off, but mainly realised the enormity. Of the now, but also the future where we’ll be the people leaving the empty house.

I was the driver and lifter-of-heavy-things or lifter-of-sad-things. Really glad we did it together, but…blimey. It was big. And I’ve decided I’m not quite ready to go back to work after all that – no matter how many episodes of Ted Lasso we’ve managed to comfort-binge on Sunday. So hopefully things will be back to normal by Tuesday.

Make the most of people around you, and stay a team through thick and thin, folks! (In our case, at least there’s comfort in playing Blokus together, with a glass of Marsala on the side.)

Dining table with a blokus game board and countless scattered unplayed pieces.
I won, but only just.

Weeknote 11th Feb – settling in for the medium haul

So it seems that a few more folks at Which? have stumbled across the blog. Hello folks! This is the inside of my head, very much as a work-in-progress. I remember an interview with the Guardian’s Marina Hyde where she said that often she would just start writing and didn’t know what she thought about something until she’d finally finished the column. This is a bit like that…only without necessarily me getting to the point where I truly know what I think. All feedback and assumption-correcting welcome!

The Day Job – sitrep

I’ve been slightly reminded of advice that I used to give to new parents: “weeks four to six are the worst, because you’ve run out of energy reserves, still don’t know what you’re doing, and have very limited positive feedback…but hang on because soon it will be coming”. I ended the working week utterly exhausted, and couldn’t stop yawning on Friday evening – but there are definitely a few things that look like they could be heading in the right direction.

This week was possibly a bit of a record for meetings – somewhere north of 30 I think. I’m even starting to get 15-minute sessions squished into the gaps between other things, but I have to remember that often the meetings *are* the work, not a distraction from it. I was also in the office three days this week as well, which felt pretty full-on, what with the Central Line still playing up.

One delightful upside of being in the office was leaving a 1:1 with one of the Lead PMs…only to see this peak-Which? meeting scheduled in the room straight after me.

Display of forthcoming meetings in a meeting room - with the next session being "cordless drill testing" followed by "social media team".
And then we go back to normal at 2pm

I got to spend a bit of time with three more of our Directors this week – Finance, Content, and Commercial. The chats all seemed to go pretty well. I didn’t use the majority of the stuff I’d prepared, but the things we did get to talk about proved really valuable – and that work definitely wasn’t wasted. Apparently I was mentioned favourably at the Board meeting later in the week, so hopefully it’s the beginning of some good working relationships. I even had some of my concerns properly listened to, rather than just brushed aside – which is something it’ll take a while to get used to after certain corners of the Civil Service. In turn, this is also an unexpected responsibility – fret openly at your own peril!

I sat in a lot of very long demos from some suppliers for a data strategy project that’s been in progress since long before I joined. Often I felt like I was just room-meat, but occasionally my outsider’s eye spotted things that folks much closer to the work hadn’t seen. But I’m still smarting from when one of the people presenting said “like when you learned SQL at school”. I suddenly felt very, very old.

I had a great exchange of emails with our data protection team about some of our personalisation ideas which are related to this work, and was hugely impressed at how transparent and enabling they were. I felt smarter as a result, rather than just better at bureaucracy. This – like the responsibility of fretting too loudly – is going to take some getting used to.

It was great to see loads of the squads adopting the updated OKRs in their check-ins, following all the really fruitful and thoughtful discussions over the last fortnight. But even better was that it moved the conversation about “what and why” forward. Teams are showing new types of data to justify these results, and one session even turned into an interesting discussion about whether the team were even being too hard on themselves – because everyone was happy with progress even if one KR was slipping. We’re collectively getting wiser and more open because of these chats, which can only be a good thing.

It’s worth noting that “Check-ins” at Which? work slightly differently to places I’ve been in before. They’re much closer to a business-centric show-and-tell. There’s nearly always a business sponsor for the work who isn’t part of the product group, and they’ll normally be there – alongside a wide range of other interested parties. So I’ve also been trying to help the teams with their storytelling to make sure they show their work in the right way – rather than getting lost in their own detail. I’m encouraging our product managers to take a much more active role in the framing of everything that’s demonstrated/shown – why it’s been included, and what to take away from it.

As a result of this poking-about in slide decks before they’re shown, I was even able to spot where one of our developers was massively underselling the financial impact of a change they’d made – and helped them revel in their achievement just a little more. “Imagine you’re hosting ‘The Price is Right’…” was how one part of my advice started.

At the other end of the spectrum, one sad recent development is that it turns out one of our Delivery Managers got a new job over Christmas, so we’re going to be recruiting shortly. Watch this space for more info.

I’ve had the chance to spend lots more time with my design counterpart, thinking about the future of our work, and talking about our users. We also did a good walk-and-talk down to Warren St to get banh-mi for lunch, and on the way back he showed me the side-view of our office…which you don’t really take in when only looking at the wedding cake front. No wonder I still get lost in it – it goes back from the Marylebone Road for *miles*!

A very very broad office building, which doesn't even fit into the shot.
The damn thing doesn’t even fit into a single shot.

Anyway, lots of progress…I think. And hopefully soon of it will be more automatic, I’ll have worked out which things are genuinely important, and I won’t be quite so shattered by 6pm on a Friday.

Side Hustles

Spent a great morning working with the Product Lead of a fascinating company called Elysia, who are an offshoot of Williams Advanced Engineering that create AI-based systems for monitoring batteries in cars, buses, trucks and more. A truly unique area that blends physics, business, data science and the environment in some very new ways. We did a lot of thinking together, and there’s a ton more to do as they start to scale up their product function and bring more product people into the business. More news on that soon, too.

As I walked down Bond St to our meeting place, I saw this rather unusual sign…that reveals quite A Particular Mindset.

Railings with a sign saying "sothebys staff only. All non-sotheby's bicycles will be removed".
So presumably they do know which bikes *are* Sotheby’s bikes?

I’ve now got a firm date booked in for when I’ll be helping out an old government friend with some skills assessment stuff.

But on Monday I also got my very last payment through from GDS. The end of nearly ten years of government work. We had some poignant fizz as a result.

Drinking Cremant de Loire in front of the telly
Cheers!

Other Nonsense

I’ve spent a vast amount of this weekend moving the blog, and leaningforward.com, to a new hosting provider. A truly tedious exercise, and a ton of time I won’t get back, but I was getting increasingly uneasy about the previous home. Still waiting for email to start working properly, but I’ll get there. I was also surprised that it took less than three hours for blogspam to start piling up, because I’d not enabled the anti-spam plugin. There are some very focused individuals out there!

Sadly all the editorial-based URLs for articles were briefly broken and just became numbers. Pah. Hopefully I fixed that linkrot before everyone gives up trying to find the older posts.

Really enjoyed the full-length audio version of Mylar Melodies’ chat with Tom Whitwell, inventor of the DIY “Turing Machine” controlled-randomness module that I spectacularly failed to get working a few months ago.

Tom’s day-job is not dissimilar to mine, and I found lots of the conversation very resonant.

  • I’m extremely jealous of his year-long sabbatical.
  • I loved the idea from Robin Sloan that code should be more like home cooking, that you can lash some bits together in your own way to solve a particular problem, and it doesn’t have to be a finished product for the outside world. Tom talks about it more as making toys.
  • Lots of people own guitars and nobody asks why they haven’t made albums; it’s ok to own a lot of synthesisers and not have done so.
  • We know a ton of the same people. And I was nudged into backing Matt Webb’s AI-powered rhyming clock kickstarter as a result.

Watched Saltburn, Oppenheimer, Maestro…and something else that’s fallen from my brain. A lot of Carey Mulligan being brilliant, as ever. Slightly sad that Oppenheimer – a film which so spectacularly fails the Bechdel Test – has won so many plaudits, and I even had a dream where Christopher Nolan won the Oscar and just shouted “shame on you all, this should have gone to ‘Barbie'” from the awards stage.

Loved this article, via Vicky Teinaki, of “Every ‘Best Picture’ winner, ranked by how good a Muppets version would be”. (It’s a bit harsh on ‘Shakespeare in Love’ though. Some people…)

Vicky and I had another reason to celebrate this weekend, the details of which can wait for another time, but of course headed up to local favourite bistro Provender to celebrate. Barring the odd unexpected phonecall, it was a lovely evening of ‘just the two of us’ being ‘just the two of us’. We also headed off for some retail therapy to Bluewater today, which was a total blast from the past, as we probably first started going there when we lived in South London about twenty years ago. It was nice to see it pulling through a slightly ‘meh’ patch pre-pandemic, when it looked like many of the original tenants were shutting up. Thankfully we managed to avoid getting sucked into Penhaligon’s, where only delightful financial ruin awaits.

A finished starter on one side of the table, some goats cheese salad in progress on the other.
This was a very nice pigeon-based thing. Which lasted less time than the phonecall.

And finally: I realised belatedly, following on from last week’s post, that the reason I don’t drink the £5-a-bottle wine that’s in the cellar because it’s now “special occasion wine” – and will buy supermarket wine for more instead – is because I chose it. I spent hours wondering which of the possible wines I’d choose, so now it now has back-story, however illogical from an economic viewpoint.

On and up!

And done…hopefully

OK, so this should mean that everything has now moved over safely – and everything’s now really on www.leaningforward.com’s new hosting space, rather than the fake playground I created yesterday. Let me know if you spot anything weird. Ta!

Weeknote – 3rd Feb – Stockpiling

We’ll come back to this embarrassment later, I promise.

It’s been a busy week of collecting things together and trying to work out what to do with them all. And in what order. Problems, ideas, data, projects and – as you can see above – wine.

It’s a slightly weird weekend, and I’m feeling a big listless. It’s just me and the youngest in the house until Monday evening, as Vicky’s off in Norwich for the weekend helping our daughter settle back into university and breathing out after a biiiiiig week chez Dolan.

The day job

I’m starting to get to the point where the pile of things to get my head around at Which? is starting to stabilise, which is something of a relief. I think I’ve now had my last thing-that-sounds-like-another-thing-but-is-actually-completely-different. Most of the nouns in conversations are now things I’ve already heard of. And some of them I even lightly understand.

The mental model of how we work is starting to take shape and feel a bit more solid now. I realised this when I was able to go a bit Lean about the interface between two teams. Yes, there are loads of problems, but in our user adoption the biggest bottleneck is right here – so any work after that is wasted, and any work ahead of it is just creating more disappointed users. I think I’m going to be using theory of constraints a lot, and pressing copies of The Goal or The Phoenix Project into a few people’s hands.

The overall 4-dimensional sankey diagram of how we most effectively make money for the charity is going to take a lot longer to form but it’s nice to see one part feel tangible.

I’ve had another great session about the underlying technology with one of our Engineering managers where they took me through our publishing stack, and how various feeds come together to appear on the page or in the app – be it a review, an article, a supplier price or whatever – and making sure people only get to see what they’re entitled to. There are a few curious choices in there, but you have to remember the prime directive – this would have been the best choice at the time, and we’re all only narrowly escaping creating New Legacy ourselves. There’s some quite big bits of data engineering going on to keep the platform together, which gives us some other good things to build on. It also looks like it’s finally time to get my head around the mental model behind GraphQL, and possibly even Node. Just at the point where I could passably understand Python. (Sob).

I’m also pleased that I’ve started getting my head around some of the underlying business data. How many users we have, conversion rates to members, which content is popular, lifetime value – that sort of thing. I’ve been flying slightly blind when coaching the teams through OKRs and trying to get them to explain value in more business terms – but hopefully I’ll be able to start doing my own triangulation going forward.

One of the things I’m continually having to try and remind people of is that more key results doesn’t always mean more work. Done right, it should mean better and more valuable work. I suspect it’s scar tissue from a slight feature-team or delivery-team past, but hopefully folks will start to understand through our checkins that it’s about helping them focus. Yes, do your original ideas, and it’s great if the big metric goes up (KR1) – but there’s a strategic aspect to that which really matters, so we need to measure that as well (KR2). PS while doing this, please don’t trash another important outcome (KR3).

Key Results should help you choose what to work on, or know if you’ve succeeded – they’re valuable constraints, not extra tasks. If they don’t, they’re probably not right.

(That being said, I’ve doubtless completely misunderstood at least one of them, but we’ll all learn together.)

I’m also starting to look a little bit to the future. There are a lot of initiatives in the air/on slide decks, and they all sound pretty sensible, but I don’t think they can all necessarily be as valuable (to the organisation and users) as each other. I wonder if we need to decide whether properly doing fewer – so that users are genuinely delighted and come in droves – will deliver more for the bottom line than MVP versions of them all. And work out how we choose which children to save. Conversations to have, and lots to learn as a result.

Next week I’ve got three more chats with other members of the Leadership Team – covering finance, content and commercial. The one last week – people – was fascinating and thought-provoking, but she also said “I know a shirt company I think you’d like, I’ll dig them out!”

Early next morning, an email arrives with a few documents we’d discussed, but also: “They’re called Simon Carter”.

I look in the wardrobe at the shirt I’m about to put on.

Yes, it turns out I would like Simon Carter shirts. (But, being fair, only at sale prices)

Extra-curricular activities

On Thursday I went to an interesting CPO Track event in Monzo’s offices, which was billed as “Brian Chesky vs Eric Reis – The Do’s and Don’ts of scaling at pace”. The panel had great folks from Monzo and Paysend, plus lovely Dave Wascha – ex of Zoopla and much else, so I was looking forward to hearing about how to avoid teams treading on each other’s toes etc. It turned out that this wasn’t the essay question the panel had in mind. This was a discussion about how the economic climate has changed, and how product folk are running out of time to start understanding how to deliver business value. As Dave said, so much of our practice and dogma around being user-focused can come across as being just arrogant and oblivious to the fact that we also need to help our organisations make or save money – by delivering more value than we cost. (He also said that he’d been utterly guilty of this himself in the past!)

I was lucky to be sitting between Emily Tate and Robin Zaragosa, and we were all slightly going “yes 1000%” under our breath. Emily rootled around on her phone and dug out a Marty Cagan blog post saying pretty much the same from – I think – 2017. Certainly he says it in this post about Value and Viability from early 2022. I was trying to thread this into the planning and financial aspects of my attempt at the new Product Manager DDaT framework. This wider responsibility is definitely something we’re going to have to step up to as a profession.

So, not what I was expecting, but useful nonetheless. And wonderful to meet so many other great people like Ines and Lyndsey, too. Sadly I couldn’t stay for the networking bit, but I hope everyone had a good time – and I look forward to the next one. And I’m cursing myself for not taking any photos.

Elsewhere, workwise:

So yes, no shortage of things on. Stockpiling projects galore.

Real Life

Very little culture to report this week. Unsurprising as the big family event was the funeral of David – Vicky’s stepdad. He turned out to have had an even more interesting life (and been more of a rogue) than we’d imagined. Much laughter, quite a few tears.

At the wake there was an open mic moment for tributes, and my daughter gave a truly touching tribute from our side of the family…and from the younger generation’s view. Barely a dry eye in the house, and so many family friends (and the other grandchildren) congratulated her on it afterwards. So well done D for telling our story!

It was a late and long day, that ended with a large amount of cheese – just as he’d have wanted.

Anyway, that’s another reason why Vicky is away right now – resetting after all of that. The two of us left in London are enjoying the sudden switch to a largely bacon-based diet, obviously.

[Don’t worry, the wine bit is coming soon.]

Books: Still hugely enjoying Steven Johnson’s “Wonderland”. He’s just been musing on why it took so long for statistics to emerge, and thinks it could only have been spotted once people stopped playing with bones or handmade dice, and regular ‘fair’ dice became normal. Until then, there was simply too much noise to spot it. He’s also talked about chess travelling further and faster than any language, and dead ends in new rules that people tried introducing. Just another wide-ranging and inspiring read from him.

Music: Obviously I’m still processing the enormous blowout last week, but it was also bandcamp Friday, so it felt foolish not to slip a few quid to people.

  • Pre-ordered the new Justice album, but also finally bought ‘Cross’ and the super-joyously-silly Gaspard Augé solo album “Escapades” (“look now I’m over-channeling Alan Parsons Project, now I’m over-channeling Asia, now I’m over-channeling Nick Kershaw”).
  • Cate Brooks has a new album. The preview track is a bit of a long evolving drone, so I’m hoping the rest will reveal itself. But hey, supporting trans modular artists is important.
  • Instrumental of Public Service Broadcasting’s “Inform Educate and Entertain”
  • Bonobo’s “Fragments”. Have listened to this loads on Spotify and it was Just Time. Although “Otomo” doesn’t sound anywhere near as good at domestic volume and without Anna Lapwood on the organ.

Also, that bloody drum machine turns out to have been such a joyous and inspired purchase. I love it. The family love it. So very very playable. I wasn’t expecting that.

So the wine, then…

Now, I know this is going to come as a surprise to some of you who’ve been on a night out with me, but it turns out I’m not drinking wine fast enough.

Every year, the lovely people at The Wine Society send me brochures saying “would you like to buy some Rhone/Burgundy/Claret en primeur”. This basically means “pre-buy it while it’s still in France”, and means you can get wines that are rarer or made by producers who can’t create at the quantities that supermarkets demand. And yes, it’s almost the only way you can get hold of £600/bottle Hermitage, but mainly I use it as a way to get nice local wines at the £5-12/bottle mark which you wouldn’t get elsewhere. If I’m feeling flush, I’ll sometimes look at the £30/bottle mark…but usually chicken out. It’s just a bloody drink, after all.

Anyway, you order this stuff, and then it turns up and sits in the Wine Society’s warehouse – and you have to pay the VAT and Duty (which you’d forgotten about when first ordering, but hey), after which it’s yours. I’ve got quite a lot of boxes downstairs in the cellar, and it’s become a really good source of “special occasion” wine. We’ve not got tons of space, so I’ve also kept some of it stored in the Wine Society’s own warehouse in the meantime – they charge a few quid per case per year, and it’s all properly temperature controlled and everything.

Only a few weeks ago, late at night after a few glasses, I got an email about the forthcoming year’s storage charge and went “wow, I’m not paying that” and immediately ordered everything that was now drinkable to be delivered to me at home. Without really looking to see how much that actually was.

Anyway, on Monday, 96 bottles of wine turned up, and thereby took up quite a large chunk of the kitchen. That’s the photo at the top of this post.

I’ve realised that I’d forgotten that most of it is plonk. Sometimes GOOD plonk, but there’s only a tiny bit that’s destined to be saved for birthdays and suchlike. But it’s all just down there in boxes, being a bit impenetrable other than with “drink by” dates written in sharpie on the label, which you can’t see from the shelf.

So I decided to make sure every box was properly labelled with the dates on every side, as well as how much the damn stuff cost, so I don’t save it forever.

Yes, two of these wines are the same, but from different years. I know, I know…

It was still a bit of a mountain, but it was a usable mountain, and in the hall rather than the kitchen. After which I embarked on some epic clearing, rationalisation and tessalation, and somehow have managed to find space for all those bottles down in the cellar.

I was so taken with how useful I found this labelling, I then went and found the prices and dates for everything else and marked them up on every corner too. So now my wine is much more like a menu – I can choose something for a given date and price point.

Yes, that’s *another* different year of the Clos de Cazaux top-dead-centre.

(It’s worth stressing that I don’t have a wine cellar, I have a cellar that has wine in it. It’s important to keep your vintage port next to the drill bits, and your Vacqueyras next to the baked beans.)

Anyway, it’s now super usable, I won’t need to rely so much on supermarket orders, and I’ve found the whole organising and labelling super-satisfying.

I’m skipping a party because I’m feeling full of cold, so maybe it’s time to open a nice hearty red to warm the cockles, eh?

Weeknote – 28th Jan – Explorations and Unearthings

This unusual juxtaposition may be a metaphor later.

Hopefully something of a short weeknote this time around – because mainly I’m sensing and processing at the moment.

It’s been a bit of an onslaught on the senses this week, with well over 30 meetings or gatherings of various kinds – ranging from individual catchups with team members to rooms with over a hundred people in. The open-tab count rather reflects this – I’m back up to over seventy again.

Being fair, this is possibly as much down to using this week’s “Meeting-free Wednesday Morning” to tick off mandatory learning backlog before it’s too late and it ends up in the “maybe soon” pile FOREVER. Previously the meeting-free block had enabled a good few hours of taming the inbox – and I definitely felt the lack of that focus.

Next week is sadly likely to be ‘more of the same’ as I’ve got to squeeze in a funeral and a lot of other Real Life things alongside the work. There’s been a LOT of Real Life over the last few weeks, and everything’s spread quite thin. There are a few coaching people I badly owe some emails as well – hopefully Monday!!!

I’ve managed to spend a lot of time with individual team members, getting to know a bit more about them, their projects and the constraints. Had a truly wonderful hour with one of our LPMs, standing in front of a flipchart and looking at how some of the components in our “subscribe” journey fit together. Even though there were a few moments where I was slightly “ouch” about what I was being shown, I’d forgotten how much I miss being involved in the making and the technology, having spent quite a long time in the more academic end of ‘the craft’.

One thing I’ve been trying to do this week in these chats is bottom out the OKRs so they work for the teams, have a clear thread to value for our leadership, and are actually agreed, rather than slightly ‘drifting organically into being’. I’ve been trying to stay in coaching mode as much as possible, but next week I may need to be a little more strident to get a few things over the line. Everyone’s genuinely lovely and wants the best, but I think I bring a slightly new way of doing things…and we’re all still getting to know each other and how we work when agreeing how that ‘best’ should be described.

I went to two Really Big Meetings (TM) this week.

The first was a gathering of all ELT – the board members and everyone who reports to them. This meant there were about 40 new names and faces to take in at once – which I didn’t exactly succeed at – but there were a few new good relationships started, including discovering some people I know I’m going to genuinely enjoy working with over the next six-ish months.

There were some new rituals to understand as well. Which? has a set of “high performing team practices” embedded into most meetings of any size, all of which are new to me. I got to hear that we no longer do the “Hu” part of “HuWuMu”, but that didn’t exactly mean a lot at this stage. I’ve been sent an email, which will be another set of open tabs, I’ve no doubt.

The other big group gathering was The Forum – an all-staff get-together to talk about how things are going. This was fascinating, as the organisation is unbelievably transparent to everyone about financial performance etc; there are even dashboards about money, subscribers and our other KRs on a telly in the kitchen, for example. There were some pretty crunchy questions from the floor, but nobody shied away from answering them – and answering them pretty honestly as far as I could tell. There was a really good presentation about the three strands of our retention strategy – which was only marred by the slight creeping dread that in three months I’m likely to be one of the people standing at the front talking through similar slides.

What else?

  • I’ve been talking to our user researchers about some of their work to date – but I need an absolute ton of time to get into the many links they’ve sent me, and work out what strategic research we really need to answer the questions forming in my head.
  • There were two more “trio” chats with my design and engineering counterparts about some of our bigger challenges. We now have a Jira board – in lieu of any other way to organise our list of reckons, ideas and worries. (We seem to be a Trello-free zone). I think this could be the first time I’ve used Jira in anger, but perhaps I’m wrong. (Maybe some of the Brexit stuff?) Anyway, these chats are going to lead to some of that strategic research.
  • I’ve sat in a few meetings about the forthcoming Data Strategy, with an agency that’s helping develop it with us – and feeling very lucky that I got to work with the excellent Sian Thomas and see how some of these choices might play out. Some other smart people are involved from our side, and hopefully we’ll find a way to prove some hypotheses cheaply before we make any big investments.

Other than that, I’m really trying to just explore and understand. There are a few things where I think “we can perhaps do better than this” – but I also know that nobody appears to be daft or wilful. This means I need to work out how we got this way – what organisational or external forces led to this particular setup – otherwise I’m going to just be wishing things were better, rather than supporting the teams in getting to any better place. I’m also trying to remember some of my heuristics about “measuring buy-in” from this blog-post shortly after I started at GDS.

On a related note, I’ve been starting to get out and about in the streets around the office. Albany Street, which leads up towards Camden, is a truly fascinating mix of eras. Lots of classic white townhouses facing into 1970s housing estates. A Ladbrokes on one side of the road, and Marksons’ workshop – full of fancy grand pianos – on the other. A disused police station that surely has some new surreptitious government purpose. Even the grotty Troutbeck estate is more than it seems – with loads of tiny businesses ranging from dentistry to sandwich delivery to film production companies, all crammed in to the basement floor. And then you walking into said estate, and it’s been built around a Victorian church – as seen in the picture at the top of this post. I’ve not yet found out more about how this planning weirdness happened, as I was running out of time before a meeting, but I’m going to keep digging.

Things closer to the Euston road are all pretty recent – but architecturally still very wide-ranging. Office blocks and luxury flats, but intermingled with video art and a tiny theatre and exorbitant-looking craft breweries.

“Regent’s Place”, I think this is called.

Culture corner: esp ‘The Motive and the Cue’

Photo of Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flyyn utterly ‘borrowed’ from the NT website.

We took Daisy to see this brilliant play as one of the presents for her recent birthday. Yes, it was a brilliant study in what it takes for a director to find their way against a wilful cast…but it also featured Johnny Flynn in his pants.

I was expecting the play to be mainly about the challenges between Gielgud and Burton, but actually it’s mainly about Gielgud’s struggles with himself. It’s set in a period of 60s-70s wilderness I wasn’t aware he’d gone through. I also wasn’t expecting it to be so much Mark Gatiss’s show. So a lot of surprises.

There’s some really imaginative scene changing, with three nested-room sets and shutters that constrain your field of view so you don’t really notice that the stage has changed size…but also actors move out of those rooms onto the apron and perform apposite bits of Hamlet while everything’s moving around, before moving seamlessly back in again.

That Sam Mendes is quite good. He’ll probably go far.

It was quite wordy, and fairly cerebral, but there was still lots of conflict and jeopardy. It certainly wasn’t deliberately tugging the heartstrings in the way that ‘Totoro’ or ‘Cabaret’ or ‘Dear England’ did, so I was even thinking (as a bit of an inveterate theatre-weeper) “blimey, we’ve got to the end of this and I’ve not even had the faintest sniffle”. And then suddenly it’s the final scene. “Zadok the Priest” kicks in, and you realise just how much tension had quietly been built up over the course of two hours. Floods. Everyone was on their feet for the curtain call, almost instantly. Fabulous stuff.

Elsewhere: had some very long drives (of which more shortly) and as a result I got to listen to the whole of Peter Gabriel’s extremely long latest album “i/o” without interruption. I even got into the second “dark side mixes” disc – and actually I prefer a few of these. They’re bit more intense, and you can overtly hear more of the instruments playing, rather than the delicate “So”-like production of the ‘bright side’ mixes. Still a strong recommend. But I’m still rinsing Caroline Polachek for balance, obvs.

Booked to see Craven Faults playing live in a few weeks’ time. Still pondering a few other gigs. But making plans right now feels a bit optimistic, given there’s no shortage of…

Real Life

Quite a bit of this going on. Mum had a fall on the way to a library story-time session at the start of the week. Thankfully only a bad sprain and a lot of bruising, but I was briefly on standby to hop into the car for a weekend visit. Thankfully it turned out not to be needed, and she seemed in better spirits this morning when I chatted to her, which is a huge relief. Sending all good vibes up north.

Finn (the Human), the cat, has had another round of eyewatering blood tests – and they still don’t know what’s wrong with him. But he does appear to be putting weight on again. And showing off by climbing trees in the garden once more. So perhaps he’s getting better again.

Daisy’s headed back to UEA for her birthday party this weekend. Sadly she left the dress she was planning to wear back in London, so I got to spend a few hours driving to a retail park outside Thetford to hand it over. We managed to grab a coffee from Costa and pick up some fruit from Sainsburys, but resisted the temptation to go and feel the new carpets.

Lovely skies though.

One unusual feature of this retail park was that it’s in the middle of army territory. So, as you sit in the car sipping your latte, you also get to hear gunfire from the Thetford Ranges just on the other side of the A11. Not 100% relaxing, but I suppose the locals get used to it.

Right, that’s enough for now. Time to go and watch a Ted Lasso or Hannah Fry or something comforting. Have a good week, everyone.

Weeknote 21st Jan – goodbyes and new friends

A new friend

So, week two of the new job is out of the way. And a ton of other things have happened in real life too.

Which? continues to make slightly more sense. Everybody remains lovely, and really helpful, but lordy there’s a lot to take in. I ended last week with about 80 tabs open, but used “meeting-free Wednesday morning” (yeah, I know, right?) to finally read and deduplicate a load of these. The key ones are now safely in my bookmarks bar, or captured (and explained) in my rolling notes document in an SEO-friendly way so I can find them again. At least I think they’re the key ones…somehow, having got down to about 30 tabs, I seemed to get back to high-60s by Friday. Argh. But I’m getting the very beginnings of a mental framework together for understanding which things matter…and also some of the context for why some obvious-to-an-outsider things are harder than they look.

Monday began with a big session (kindly chaired by one of our Product Leads) to talk through each team’s OKRs for the forthcoming quarter. Loads of really good work going on, but I think I managed to ask some useful questions. Often these were about focus, or dependencies, or just storytelling – making the line to value and any tradeoffs much clearer. There are some data gaps which make it hard to evaluate some things in real time – but focusing on Only The Bits I Can Control risks sounding a bit blind to the wider worries of the organisation. Similarly, there were important technical projects that hadn’t really explained the reason they were more important than ‘more feature work’ in terms the business could understand. All eminently fixable, and loads of folks booked in chats later in the week to talk things through. Balancing OKRs fixed a lot of things: “yes, {this thing the team can control} needs to go up, but {this other financial thing you have less say in but the organisation worries about} needs to not also go down as a result”.

We had the monthly commercial review meeting, which was more of a look back at the quarter and look forward to each team’s OKRs across the wider organisation. 3-4 members of LT were in the room, plus loads of my peers ELT, and I was remote – so I was really having to concentrate. Thankfully my design equivalent Stephen was in the room and did a brilliant job telling our story. There were a few surprise dependencies from other teams, where their results depended on work I don’t think we’ve got planned – but I’m going to dig into that next week to find out where conversation with my predecessor had got up to. Again, all eminently fixable.

There was a great first meeting of the ‘product leadership trio’. I’m determined that I work as one with my equivalents from engineering and design, and making us our own multidisciplinary team when creating strategy – rather than doing things in silos. We’ve all got different perspectives and experiences, and it was really great to talk about some of the opportunities going forward. I think we’re going to do some extremely good stuff.

Thursday was almost non-stop fake-extroverting, but it was worth it. The day started with a big workshop involving all of the Product and Technology “Heads”. Getting aligned with Cybersecurity, IT, etc etc. I got to talk about things like my aphantasia and terrifying wine-collecting habit, but learned tons about others in the room…and hope to be cooked a meal by at least one of them quite soon. It was lightly odd that we were all men, but I think we’re all very conscious of that potential for blind spots. We then had a big whole-team “show and tell” followed by drinks. I got to see some really great work from four very different teams, and might have talked about cybersecurity a little too much, but it was lovely to get a warm glow from their achievements…that I had nothing to do with.

I’m starting to think a little bit about data strategy, and how teams can help each other on collective outcomes, but it’s very early days…

Next week looks even more interesting, so bring it on.

Let’s talk about other things.

RIP David Graham

David and I, when we were a fair bit younger.

OK, so this news broke on Sunday morning and the last issue had gone out. David was Vicky’s stepdad, and had been ill with cancer for a long time – plus tons of other things that come from having lived a very, er, Thorough Life. He’d spent a good few years as the main carer for Vicky’s mum, as Altzheimer’s slowly took her away from us, so it’s a huge shame he didn’t get longer to enjoy a bit more respite from that.

He was always hugely enthusiastic about everything we did – loudly championing our music, our kids, our interests, when others were being more polite. You’d sheepishly mention a track you’d made, and be talked into playing it…then made to play it again while he talked about how fabulous it was. At my 40th birthday, a few friends even thought he was my actual dad.

He had a fascinating life, with his early years on a tobacco plantation in Rhodesia, then being sent away to boarding school in Capetown at the age of 7 – a train ride that lasted days – then studying law in the UK, returning to Rhodesian and getting into trouble with Ian Smith’s regime for providing help to some of the people hoping for change. He ended up having to flee the country at short notice and settled in Brighton. (He later got to be profoundly disappointed by how some of those he’d personally helped behaved once they were in power).

He worked for Brighton Council, even finding a way for a private company to invest in the piers, before finally becoming a solicitor. He also had a stint as a chef, and we always looked forward to his culinary experiments when we visited.

Fare well, old chap.

Culture Corner

Because we were all processing that news, I stepped in for Vicky to go and see Gecko Theatre’s amazing new show ‘Kin’ at the National Theatre, so her ticket didn’t go to waste. The NT’s trailer is pretty minimal, but here’s one from earlier in the year that gives more of a flavour of this amazing piece of physical theatre:

I’ve always loved their work, having first seen Amit being absolutely captivating in a production of “Brighton Beach Scumbags” well over twenty years ago upstairs at the Brockley Jack, and “Tailor’s Dummies” was a particular favourite. There’s even a bit of one of their sets that’s got my name on the back of it, after the first one went up in flames (at that awful BAC fire?) and they needed to crowdfund a replacement.

This piece is about immigrants: what keeps them together, how that can be used to pit one group against another, and the tension between loyalties to your family and the desire to fit in to wider society. Really powerful…and also only 1h20m. Bargain. Afterwards Amit came by our group for a bit of a chat to talk about it too!

So do go and see that if you can. What else?

I’ve been delving into options for the next round of simpler piano pieces, and slowly sorting a playlist into rough priority order. We’ll see how we get on.

It was “payday” chez Dolan on Monday, as we’ve always aligned my contracting around BBC pay cycles so we can keep track of ebbs and flows a bit more reliably. This meant I went on a MASSIVE BANDCAMP SPLURGE of loads of things that also featured on my Christmas List- but were now fair game.

  • Three Pengin Cafe albums – including the one with the lovely cover of Simian Mobile Disco’s “Wheels Within Wheels”. Very good for working to.
  • The entire back catalogue of ‘Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan’ – who make these lovely 80s-inspired electronica albums with names like “Interim Report, March 1979”. Their latest album “The Nation’s Most Central Location” came top in Electronic Sound’s 100 albums of the year, and deservedly so. It’s the soundtrack to a municipal corporate video that never existed, and is a total delight.
  • Creep Show’s albums – at last. I didn’t realise I’d never bought these, given how often I’ve listened to the amazing track “Yawning Abyss” with John Grant’s delightful witty vocals. Clearly just Spotify downloads I rinsed like mad a few months ago – but I’ve made amends finally.
  • Milk Drunk by (brace yourselves) Dangerwank. This is their second album – the first having been created “in a range of London co-working spaces”. It’s similarly a soundtrack for a modern working world that’s not quite as it seems…but somehow manages to be rather beautiful at the same time
  • Preordered Jane Weaver’s “Love in Constant Spectacle” – of course. The lead single is perhaps a bit of a return to the spacerock roots, after a bit more of a Cocteau Twins vibe on “Flock”, but like a musical hug.
  • Finally, I bought Caroline Polachek’s “Pang”. I find it so frustrating that such a brave and experimental artist is largely ignored by the posh music press (*cough* Electronic Sound) because it’s “pop”. This is as ‘out there’ as Charli XCX at times, but she’s a much MUCH better singer. In fact the album’s utterly led by her amazing voice – and the crazy production is just there in support. I would love to have some insight into her working processes, as it must all just start with the vocals…so presumably she hears all this in her head, pre-formed. Probably my biggest recommendation of the list. But Jane has the cute lofi video of her being a giantess, so that wins for links.

New Toy!

So given payday, post-christmas price drops, and the tax return being better than I thought, I decided it was time to treat myself to a new gadget. I’d really enjoyed tinkering with the Pocket Operator drum machines, and liked their tangibility and immediacy…but they’re a little bit arcane, rather unpredictable, and you only get 16 patterns to play with. Meanwhile Ableton’s drums are still a bit close to Cubase-style sequencing. It’s hard to get truly immersed without diving into menus, even with a Push 2 controller. So – partly because of this little series of videos – I’ve cracked and got a Roland TR-8S.

The tipping point may also have been the realisation that I can make it to Juno in Camden during the lunch hour – this is potentially going to get expensive!

But it’s BLOODY LOVELY. Such fun. And really well designed for just playing around. There are loads of things that are buried in menus, but nearly everything has a “by the way if you hold this button and turn this knob, you can just do it live”. It’s quite rare to make something that impresses the daughter – but she was really getting down to my first little experiments. I felt rather proud.

That’ll do for now. Not least because next week looks pretty busy work-wise, and I’ve got “The Motive and the Cue” to fit in plus a few other bits in the evenings.

Onwards!

Weeknote 13th Jan – starting blocks

The new gaff

So, it’s been a big and interesting week, with no shortage of watersheds. It’s 7pm on a Saturday evening as I start writing this. I’m sitting here in the studio drinking a plonky glass of Pinot Noir, waiting for a celebratory curry to arrive, and generally feeling that – you know what – things are pretty ok.

The New Job

I’ve started at Which? – and yup, the first week has been good.

I’m definitely feeling slightly overwhelmed by the amount of context I’ve got to pick up. It’s quite an unusual organisation, being the not-for-profit corporate arm of a charity, raising the funds through content and services to do all that consumer research and advocacy work. A vast proportion of the £80+m we raise each year is managed through our website – a mix of memberships (print, print+digital, digital-only), additional value-add subscriptions, or partnerships/referrals. Not all of the money relies on or is created by digital – and of course it’s all underpinned by a huge long-standing content operation which isn’t our patch – but we touch a lot of it. There’s also a lot of members – more than I fully realised. So yay – the upside is that any small improvements can scale out to quite big numbers. The downside is that I’m now highly aware of the pressure not to cock anything up. Which means lots more to read and understand.

I’ve ended the week with a largely-filed inbox, which is a win, but still have about 70 tabs open. There are a lot of fractal documents, containing lists of links to other documents, which also link to other documents – some of which I’ve opened, and others remain undiscovered. And obviously I don’t know which are the ones that truly matter, or the problems that are truly important. But I’m pretty sure I’ll get there!

The big thing is that everyone seems truly lovely. Genuinely fab. I’ve had a great onboarding, with loads of meetings already scheduled, IT that (largely) just worked and so much more. I’ve even been sent a spreadsheet with my full year’s budget breakdown – something of a shock after years inside government where contractors were definitely second-class citizens. But a really pleasant suprise to be feeling so empowered and trusted.

The teams are currently busy getting the OKRs ready for the next quarter – and making sure they ladder up to the organsiation’s own annual OKRs. It’s been quite weird to be asked my opinions on what teams are proposing, knowing that a) my words carry a bit of weight and b) currently I know Virtually Nothing, but I seem to be asking useful first-principle questions about their ideas. I’ve been helping a bit with storytelling craft and ideas around our data strategy too.

We had our first community session on Thursday morning, bringing together all the product, deliver and SEO people in one room. Somehow we managed to fill 75 minutes with intros, AMA, me explaining my stupid aphantasia etc. It’s strange stepping into someone else’s shoes so rapidly – and lightly weird to have a meeting like that on a day when I knew they were all going out for my predecessor’s leaving drinks later on – but nobody’s made me feel unwelcome. The complete opposite in fact.

I’ve had one-to-ones with a few of the Leads, some peers on ELT, and nice passing chats with some of the LT members too. Some really good chats with new boss Rico, and I think I might have been a useful sounding board on a few things already.

Plus: the building is ABSOLUTELY AMAZING. Not quite OAB levels of epic, but not far off – and it’s as modern as anything on the inside. Long tables set up for squad working, lots of wall whiteboards etc. It’s a stone’s throw from Regents Park which is going to be fabulous when things warm up. Oh, and there’s free coffee machines, and breakfast available 8:30-9:30 with more jam varieties than I knew existed. All of which are truly wonderful – presumably because they’re our very own “best buys”. So I love the environment, and I love the start to the day.

That said – four days in the office, faking it as an extrovert. Bit knackered now.

Wilkommen to Cabaret

Having walked past it on the way home every day I was in the office at DIT, on Thursday I finally managed to make it to see ‘Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club’ down by Embankment, with Daisy and Vicky.

(It was slightly strange being back in DIT-locale though, given the “I’m nothing to do with government these days” transition I’ve just been through. While we were in the queue, I even saw a former colleague walking to the station on her way home. Life goes on etc.)

Anyway, the show is brilliant – but also not 100% comfortable, obviously. It’s immersive, and very stylish, but in a slightly grimy way. An extremely intimate space and production, but that also makes it harder to avoid what a sad piece it is. Jake Shears is both hugely charming and utterly evil as The Emcee. He’s an enormous presence on stage, and of course an amazing singer with a vast range. But that makes the story transition towards the end ever more scary. The nazi regalia are thankfully hugely understated, but that somehow actually increases their impact.

Obviously, as a bit of a Self Esteem stan, I’d originally signed up for the show to see Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s take on Sally Bowles. I thought she did amazingly, bringing out the fragile self-delusion and clinging-on-to-survive-another-day. Not a hint of the Sheffield rage I’m used to from her day-job – it’s an incredibly controlled and nuanced performance. Mind you, at the end, she looked absolutely emotionally drained by it. Sharing a stage with a showman like Jake Shears was always going to be a high bar, but she definitely managed to hold her own and really brought some heft to the ending. Bravo RLT!

Anyway, it’s very good – and you should go and see it if you can. Check Self Esteem’s instagram feed if you want to see her in particular though – there are a few dates she’s not performing. This should give you the vibe of what you’ll get…

Music Shenanigans

Haven’t done much electronic music as I’ve been too tired…or out at the theatre obvs. But today was my first piano lesson of the new term, and I’d been lightly cramming my Schumann pieces for that.

It went unexpectedly well.

My piano teacher Seb said “yep, those are fine, you’ve done the work, you’re playing much better, and they’ve done what I needed them to…what are we going to work on next?”

So I’ve spent a lot of this afternoon with music manuscript books and spotify, looking for interesting new things to try. Seb’s said that a) it has to be something pretty slow, as he still wants to work on the cantabile and arm-weight aspects of my technique/style, and b) it can’t be too hard, as we want to make a decent dent in it within a few weeks.

I’ve now got a longlist covering everything from Janacek to Skepmton to Bach to Tchaikovsky to Satie. And a spotify playlist to make so I can whittle them down. I need to like them enough to be arsed to put the work in, and to be sure they’re at the right level. (Sadly this ruled out quite a lot of the Prokoviev and Ravel respectively – ho hum).

But a victory. I don’t think we’ve ever said “those are done” before – we’ve moved on to other pieces out of frustration or boredom. Hussah!

Miscellany

Not a lot else to report really.

  • Given the new job shenanigans I abstained from this round of bafta voting, and have had a week off of cramming in films.
  • Watched a bit of Sky’s new romcom “Smothered” which looks very promising.
  • Quite a lot of parenting things going on.
  • Not managed much in the way of exercise, but have done a fair bit of walking at lunchtimes – getting down to Oxford St even.
  • I’ve succeeded in finishing at a more sensible time than in the last few jobs – hurrah. Sadly, I’m doing a less-great job of having a clear start to the day. I tend to go and set up the laptop, with the aim of then doing meditation/getting breakfast, and then accidentally starting work without thinking and realise an hour later I’ve still not eaten. A boundary to keep working on.

So overall, I’m looking forward to next week…

For most of the week it’s more populated than this, I promise.
Going to try not to arrive at 9:29 next week, as well!

Weeknote 7th Jan 2024 – End of One Era…

Goodbye old friend, we’ve been through a lot.

So, something of a quiet week work-wise, as I’m not actually employed right now. This was thrust into sharp relief when a courier came the the house on Monday to take away my partner-in-crime for the last eleven months.

In many ways losing this laptop felt much stranger than other job changes because it was very much “and there goes government”, something I’ve been used to being inside and connected to for a very long time. I’m sure there are virtually-public documents I’ll rue not copying, or contacts I’ll curse myself for not adding to a personal phone, not to mention folks I will miss being able to badger on the cross-government slack at a moment’s notice. But it’s definitely time for a change, and the clean break is going to be good for my wellbeing.

To that end, I decided that I was going to give back my ticket to the ukgovcamp unconference later this month. I booked it ages ago, when I was still in “GDS Head of Product Profession” mode. I’m sure I’d have seen loads of old friends there, but I realised it was just a bit too early to be caught up in the inevitable advice-giving and light coaching. Next year, I’m going. And I think I’ll have a lot more fun. I hope that whoever gets my ticket has a total blast.

Traditionally most folks leaving government go on a massive rant about everything they’ve not been able to say for years, due to rules on impartiality. It’s certainly tempting, but so many of the things I’d want to talk about are now playing out in a blatantly obvious fashion, so – well – it’s not going to make much difference…to me or others.

However: folks still within the civil service, I am still going to be there defending you and standing up for the hard choices you have to make in difficult circumstances. I hope you continue to be evidence-guided and hypothesis-driven wherever you can be, despite the pressures. I’ll soon be in a position to provide tea and sympathy once more – but I do need to have this bit of breathing space first. And if I ever start bitching as though I know better when I wasn’t there in the room, please send me a message and I’ll fix things asap.

Also on the leaving front: I’ve continued to have a trickle of lovely messages arrive in the inbox from former colleagues, talking about ways I’d helped them or the blimey-I-didn’t-know-that reason they’d not been able to be part of the rituals of my departure. Thank you all. And if anyone feels like leaving a Recommendation to my LinkedIn profile that would be just lovely. As someone who acts as ‘general organisational glue’ it can be incredibly helpful stuff to reflect on. (I remember that, for one prior big job, I learned more about what I’d actually done for people through those recommendations than almost anything else.)

I’m still getting folks liking, commenting on, and sharing my work on the Product DDaT Framework within social media, which is nice. (I even had one text message that was so kind I might have had a tiny tear in my eye.) Anyway, fingers crossed this means it will continue to have a life once folks are back in the office, despite the pressures of everyone’s day jobs.

New Bug

I start at Which? tomorrow.

I’ve spent a bit of today gathering all my thoughts as an outsider, along with a few things folks said to me about their own impressions of the organisation/offer. I also walked through the process of deciding whether to subscribe, poking around the free offer and walking the payment journey. Because tomorrow I’ll start having loads of context that will erode that outside view, so I want something to be able to refer back to. “This is what you *used* to think, Tom”. And I looked through my Job Description once more.

There’s lots to think about in that collated document – but I also know I’m joining a bunch of smart people, who’ll have considered or tested loads of things already, and have a ton of ideas of their own.

Anyway, preparations. I’ve chosen a new-ish Moleskine notebook for day one. Not completely untouched, but certainly one that isn’t full of existential woes from the last 18 months. I’ve got two brand-new Rotring Tikky pencils, and some fairly fresh fine-point sharpies, and decided not to switch back the Livescribe just yet. So the satchel is completely prepared.

Thankfully I’m travelling light, as there’s a tube strike tomorrow and getting from East London to Regents Park for 9:30 is going to be a bit of a pain. Everyone else comes by overground train, so I’m one of the few affected. But I am also delighted that I’m making the journey in for what sounds like an *incredibly* well-planned induction process. Feeling really heartened by that, and looking forward to getting stuck in.

What else?

There’s been a lot of culture.

First up was going to see the RSC/Improbable production of “My Neighbour Totoro” at the Barbican.

This is the only photo I got to take – as they rightly say everyone should discover the magic for themselves. Suffice to say, it’s absolutely epic – as you’d expect given that the director is more used to putting on productions of Philip Glass operas. The puppetry is designed and built by the Hensons, and just when you think “there’s no possible way they’ll pull off that scene from the film”, somehow they do. There’s genuinely a Totoro on stage. He’s massive. And moves. Even this little blue opening screen contains some playfulness as the evening transforms from a film to a stage show.

Anyway, here’s the trailer:

Yes, the tickets are…not cheap. But you can really see where the money’s gone. The girl who plays ‘Mei’ is utterly convincing as an annoying four-year-old. The mum is a much more rounded character, Kanta has a back-story. I actually think it’s…gasp…better than the film. I’m really hoping to see it again before it closes, even if it’s just me on my own. Happy to conspire with other folks who are tempted, though…

Also, inexplicably, in the Barbican Auditorium that night there were a whole bunch of the costumes from the new Emma Stone film “Poor Things”.

They were absolutely *beautiful*. And of course you can’t help but be agog and think “but the real Emma Stone really wore these clothes, you know…like…EMMA STONE!”

We watched the film itself across two nights this week, courtesy of BAFTA shenanigans. It’s a complicated watch, I must say. She is incredible in it – just so detailed in how she portrays a child’s mind in an adult’s body. Visually it’s astounding. Mark Ruffalo is totally charming as a cad and bounder, and having an absolute blast. The hybrid creatures populating her world remind me of that old b3ta.com era website Human Descent in their playfulness. Loads of it is wry and funny. But…it’s also very gruesome, and some other people watching it with me were pretty uncomfortable about whether all the sex in it was completely necessary – or if the shooting style through all the fish-eye lenses veered away from being about viewing her as a science experiment and more into voyeurism. Emma was one of the producers, and has said that she sees the film about being what life would be like for women if they didn’t have shame. I can see the argument for that, but it also does still feel a bit of a “male gaze” film. There’s a lot to admire, and I’m glad I saw it – but I don’t think I want to watch it again and it’s definitely NOT a date film.

Otherwise, it’s been a bit quiet on the film-watching front. “A Haunting in Venice” was good fun and well executed. You kind of know what you’re going to get with Branagh’s outings as Poirot, and it doesn’t disappoint.

I got a bit overwhelmed by “I have a week left to do ALL THE LEISURE” at the start of the week. I wrote down a list of everything that was in my head I *could* be doing, and it filled more than a side of A4. So I just kept halving that list until I found the top few things that really mattered.

  • The tax return is done. Thankfully this year I had a pleasant surprise and found I’d saved enough in advance. Unlike last year when I found out my umbrella company had got their sums wrong and I owed HMRC five grand. Just as I was leaving DIT. But this time I’ve got a few hundred quid spare. For some definitions of “spare”.
  • I started making a dent in Dave Martin and Andrea Saez’s “Product Momentum Gap”, which has been by the side of the bed for ages.
  • Similarly, I’ve been getting through Steven Johnson’s “Wonderland” which is a fabulous book about how many inventions today came from playfulness and mucking about and entertainment to an almost equal extent that they emerged from the scientific and industrial thinking we traditionally celebrate.
  • I slept, meditated, walked, went to the osteopath to get uncricked and did lots of other basic care.

I also radically simplified the studio, because I wanted to do some actual writing of music and get into flow. I put away the modular rig, because – even though I really enjoy using it – it sometimes feels like discovering rather than creating music. And I wanted to remember how to do the latter. All the technology was starting to get in the way, and I was consumed with how I was going to bring together all my different influences – Hannah Peel, Debussy, Peter Gabriel, Underworld etc etc – and getting nowhere.

Vicky went all Roy Kent at me – told me to stop taking it all so seriously, and just have some facking fun.

So I did. This was knocked up in an afternoon, and still needs tons of work, obviously, but I’m rather pleased with it. While making it I learned/remembered an absolute ton about my synths, my software, and my joy in music. I’m still not 100% sure if it’s going to be an instrumental or a song. The chorus needs to be a bit more distinct from the verse. There are some passing notes (in the bassline in the middle of the chorus) that do weird things with the harmony. It needs to be a bit less blatantly William Orbit. And it needs to progress across the song – this is still my “la-ing along” version while I work out what the shape truly is. You’ve heard it all by the end of the first chorus. But it’s a demo of something that will one day be something else – or maybe two something elses.

Maybe there will soon be more of the same – but better.

I’ve just heard that the tube strike tomorrow is off, which is a huge relief. I’m off to go and make dinner, think about exciting new opportunities, and try not to spend too much time missing the past…

Don’t look back, don’t look back…