Data is a material for building with

I believe that architects and engineers must think of data as a material. Start with visibility: disclose data collection in a way that makes it clear and understandable. The built environment could show the seams” of its data. Just as some buildings have information displays that indicate energy performance, a building might show how it collects and uses data.

I helped Sarah Gold at Projects by IF write a piece for Icon Magazine about data being a material for building with (the piece doesn’t seem to be online though :( ). The work of Ben Cerveny and Timo Arnall was really useful in thinking about how data relates to the built environment.

Why Co-op Digital writes a newsletter

I wrote a bit about the Co-op Digital newsletter for the Co-op blog, how it started and how it’s put together etc. The clever Amy McNichol did the difficult making it make sense” bit.

There are still Amazon is coming!” stories, and there are frequent this seems like a problem for big tech companies” stories. Occasionally we add small bits of fiction if we think they might be a good way to explore an idea.

However the jokes are still terrible. Do you want frAIes with that? needs not an explanation (machine learning at McDonald’s) but apologies forever, sorry.

You are right, the jokes are not good. But the fiction bits seem to resonate with readers. Current stats: 51% open rate, 15% click rate.

Previously: 100 Co-op Digital newsletters.

Four years

Four years ago I started Holdfast Projects at a time of change. A health thing had happened. I left a company I’d given a decade to. We moved up to Scotland to see more of the wider family. I wanted to work in different industries to security (personal finance? digital but less secretive?) and a different kind of work (writing). I knew that I didn’t want to spend half the week down in London, or every day commuting to Edinburgh. So I did some consulting gigs doing product management and design for tech companies, but gradually I tried to nudge the work towards writing what I (semi) jokingly call expensive words”.

This is both a quadrennial year note for a company and a triennial-ish year note for a new career, and the latter is probably more interesting. Some things I learned, in no particular order:

  1. It was hard to walk away from a company I’d co-founded, and I didn’t realise how much I’d need to decompress. But afterwards I wondered why I hadn’t left years earlier. (There were multiple cognitive biases hard at work in both those sentences and the situations they’re describing.)
  2. I’ve done 17 projects for 11 customers, though it feels like more. The shortest project was a day, the longest a couple of years. I’ve typed up to 2,000 words a week, and some of them were good. I have read a lot of the internet, and some of it was good. Half of the projects were me working alone, half with a team or with sub-contractors. Fastest-paying customer: under a day after invoice (take a bow, Thayer Prime). Slowest-paying: about 80-90 days.
  3. Most of the work has come from people who already knew me or had already seen my work somewhere. When your sales prospects don’t know you or your work, the sales cycle is often tentative and very slow, more like long-term relationship building. So it is interesting to look at where you already have long-term relationships.
  4. This suggests that it helps to put good things out there, to be helpful to people (without expecting anything in particular back in the short term), and to stay in touch with people. Being Helpful and Pleasant can be a marketing strategy!
  5. Most deals take longer to put together than you expect, so you have to plan for that, which typically means gradually shoving many things forward in parallel. It is hard juggling a sales pipeline to get the right balance between too much and too little. I had to have plenty of conversations because half of the sales leads came to nothing: the conversation fizzled out, or I was too expensive for them, or the timing wasn’t right, or some other reason.
  6. You get the work that you do, so if you’re a database engineer who wants to become a plumber, you can’t wait until someone offers plumbing work to you. You have to find a way to do some plumbing, or at least to get closer to that world (foot in the door by doing databasing for plumbers?) My transition from product management to writing was: put some writing out into the world (an example, asserting that I’m a plumber writer now”, then writing a few reports and web pages etc for people (and continuing to assert it), and then gradually getting writing work that was more interesting and more frequent.
  7. A distinctive story. You need to be able to tell the story - the promise” - as something very brief and distinctive. You want to say to people I do X” in a way that they get and remember (and then go on to repeat to other people). You want them to understand why you. Funnily enough, since this is part of the writing-for-digital discipline, I’ve found this quite hard. It can help to think about what’s the twitter-length version of what you do and why someone should care. Newsletters that explain what’s happening on the internet to big companies” hopefully tells the story and hints at the value you’ll create. Words that work for digital organisations” is still a bit woolly, I’m working on it. But I type computer words” would have been unhelpful and dull.
  8. Writing for organisations is fun. The job to be done is your guide, as is the organisation itself - its values, how it thinks of itself. The Co-op Digital newsletters job is to nudge a primarily internal audience to keep thinking about how the internet is arriving on the shores of retail and services businesses. Its tone is slightly sarcastic, slightly poking-the-organisation. ustwo’s newsletter is lighter, more positive and it tells a primarily external audience look at this cool stuff that is happening!” One newsletter project got taken in house after I and a partner did a zeroth edition, which is fine. Determining success is sometimes hard: we haven’t tracked the readership and open/click rates particularly closely (the Co-op newsletter has a ~50% open rate and 15% click rate and ustwo has ~75% open, 15% click, which seem to be ok). So you might say the writing has had more in common with marketing/comms, evangelism, opinioning, even analysis. The side project - a how to do money” thing with Anna Goss - has been great but it suffers from lack of time. She has written it up well.
  9. Working with other people is good, whether they’re customers, partners delivering a thing with me, or people I’ve brought a project to and sub-contracted. Conversely, working alone is also good. They are different types of good, and maybe you need both.
  10. The product management gigs were short term. I found it hard to have much impact unless the client organisation (often my customer’s client) was very receptive. In one case, I was part of a team that made a pretty good thing but the client never used it, which was a shame :( I suspect that product management’s natural commitment should be 2-5 years, not 2-5 weeks or months.
  11. As Phil Gyford says in his evergreen guide to freelancing, you have to be your own everything: account manager, sales dept, HR manager, task master etc. Working remote can add complications - continuous partial attention, finding ways to focus on the work, not knowing what’s happening at The Customer - but being fairly present on eg Slack can help (you wonder if working remote favours people who are happy to be ambiently and interruptibly present and can type quickly).

So there’s a bit of momentum now. I can see a couple of decision points on the horizon:

  • keep it at its current level vs grow it by working with more people
  • focus in on a particular content type vs stay broader

Of course none of it is possible without support from my family, who are the utter best. And thanks to customers, colleagues and co-conspirators - you are many, a delight to work with. You’re all appreciated, I am lucky. Anyway, year 5 let’s go.

100 Co-op Digital newsletters

A couple of weeks ago I reached the 100th Co-op Digital newsletter. A milestone I didn’t expect to reach when we started out, so a pleasant surprise.

The format has changed a bit over time. These days it is most often:

  • An image, either about one of the stories or some eye-catching art
  • Five or six stories. Sometimes one of the stories comes with a chunk of fiction - that one had a lot of very nice comments from kind readers.
  • A list of Other news”
  • Some things that Co-op Digital is doing, and some events.

In Oct 2017 we added a proper, emailed version, which Mailchimp says has an open rate of 49% and a click rate of 15%, though I try write it so you don’t need to click anything. The newsletters are all here.

It’s harder to write than I thought it would be at the beginning, despite (or perhaps because of) its core message being reducible to Look! Amazon is comingggg!” It would probably be better if it had fewer links and maybe a bit less snark at times. I’m lucky to be doing it - thanks Gail Lyon, Russell Davies, and the wider Co-op Digital team, who’ve sent me lots of interesting stories to write about.

My job (making words that are clear)

[An attempt to write something clear that can be read in a minute while also being compliant” with Upgoer5 and performing ok in Hemingway app. Obvious limitations in these tools, particularly that constrained vocabularies aren’t the same as plain language.]

My job is writing words and making computer things

I write words to explain computer news, ideas and things to people in a news letter. And sometimes I help people make their own words about computer things better. It’s best when people reading the words know what the words mean - it is much easier for them. Usually this means writing simple and clear words and lines. (But sometimes using only words from a box of ten hundred words is, in fact, not clear. A box of ten hundred words isn’t good, is it?)

My other job is working with people in a team to make new computer things. We hope that the new computer things will help people fix a problem they have, or do a job or enjoy themselves. In my team, I draw pictures and write words that make the computer thing good and easy to use. Other people type the computer words which make the computer thing work.

How do we work? We make a small computer or cell phone thing that we hope will be good, and then we show it to the people who will use it. Then we learn from those people, and we go back and make the computer thing again so that this time it is better. We sometimes do this many times.

Co-op Digital newsletter: blockchain

The latest Co-op Digital newsletter was a good challenge.

The EU referendum result had come in a couple of hours before we published, and it couldn’t be ignored. But Co-op had no formal editorial position on the vote, and I’m representing Coop Digital rather than my own views. So I gritted my teeth and wrote something simple that looked forward. Then I went back to shouting hoarsely at the TV news for days.

It also had a piece on bitcoin, blockchains and the unfolding story of DAO (blockchain contracts, hackers etc). One of the things that makes bitcoin really interesting is that you have a sense that there’s probably something there a long time before you understand what it is. Perhaps like when you see something shiny flashing in a water fountain, and you don’t yet know if it’s a coin or something else, and then when you put your hand in to pick it up, it’s a lot deeper than you think due to the water’s refraction and… etc.

Here’s a bit, cut from the newsletter to keep it shorter, trying to neatly capture what they are:

What is Bitcoin? A decentralised digital currency, in which the transactions are between (anonymous) individuals rather than via an intermediary like a bank or VISA. It’s a decent medium of exchange (you can buy quite a lot of of things with it), but a volatile store of value (it goes up and down a lot in value against other currencies).

What is the blockchain? A public, distributed and continuously-growing ledger of between every bitcoin transaction historically, that’s cryptographically hardened” against tampering and revision. In money terms, it replaces the credit ledger functions of a central bank. Bitcoin was the first blockchain-based digital currency, but there are other blockchains, such as Ethereum.

Why are blockchain-based currencies interesting? Because there are no financial intermediaries, transaction costs can be much lower. They may fill a gap for countries with under-developed banking systems. The proof of work mechanism authenticates the user in a relatively tamper-proof way, but introduces weird inefficiencies: it’s energy inefficient and it takes time.

I still don’t understand bitcoin or blockchains, but am trying to get there.

The newsletter itself is magic to work on. Strong, decisive team of good people at Co-op, great mission, and I’m learning lots. You can get it in your email here.