Good product management

I was asked to give a short talk to some colleagues about product management. I opted to share some brief attempts to define it. This is hard, so I pointed to other people’s attempts. Next I shared what I think are the characteristics of good product management. This bit, since it was just my current opinions, was both easy and fun.

Here are the slides.

Some of my collections

I spoke at the Shoreditch Ideas Club last night, an event that Hugh Garry organises for Shoreditch House.

I wanted to explore whether the act of collecting might have some additional extrinsic value beyond the collection itself. It’s also a bit of a confession (spoiler: it turns out that I collect collections) so if you end up skimming through this list, do re-join it when you see the wooden toadstools near the end. There’s a point. Honestly.


This collection of spoons is probably my first collection. I collected tea spoons at every opportunity for a few years but now they’re in this box frame in my kitchen and I have not added to it for a long time. I’m not proud of the fact that quite a few of them are stolen from cafes and restaurants.

LEGO 7190 Millennium Falcon

I’ve always loved LEGO, but I started collecting it seriously at university, when this Star Wars stuff was new. A few years ago I sold a few sets on eBay (including this one), and as anyone who has sold something on eBay knows, Paypal money is easier to spend than money in the bank…

Harry Potter LEGO minifigs (bagged and ready for sale) Harry Potter LEGO minigs (stockpile) Harry Potter storage

I became a Lego trader for a while; buying in bulk and selling on eBay to the highest bidder. I ended up buying quite a lot of Lego.

Boxes and boxes of Lego (1) Boxes (stacked) with notes

As you can see, it all got a bit out of hand. I now have a rather ridiculous collection. These days it’s actually sorted into little trays and my spare room is now an actual Lego studio. Oh yes. A lot of people want to know if I ever actually play with it.

WOPR - 1 of 3 Usual Suspects Who wants to be a millionaire?

Not as much as I’d like, but I do sometimes make things. You’ll hopefully recognise the WOPR from War Games, the Usual Suspects and Chris Tarrant saying ‘we don’t want to give you that’ on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

But really, other people make all the best stuff.

The Beatles, Abbey Road American Beauty "Break's Over"

That’s The Beatles, Abbey Road by Dunechaser, American Beauty by Matijagrguric, and Break’s Over by appius95, based on the level in Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 called ‘Cliffhanger’.

This sort of scene on a small base is known as a vignette. I liked the form so much that I set up a Flickr group to collect them.


This is bliss for the serious collector; a public group like this is very passive way to build a public collection. Over the past few years I mostly go in a couple of times each month to do some gardening. The group now holds 8,000 photos from 1,700 users.

Let’s see. What else?

In The Fridge

A few years ago, I saw this photo from kaptainkobold (another adult fan of Lego), which he took inside the fridge with the door closed, using a self-timer and a flash.

In the fridge

I thought “That looks fun” and quickly took my own, adding notes to annotate what each thing is. You can tell quite a lot about a person by the inside of their fridge.

In the fridge View from the inside Inside a fridge (w/ cabbage)

At dinner parties I would ask friends if I could take a photo of the inside of their fridge. They would open the door for me, at which point I’d have to explain that I was going to need them to shut it again and would they bear with me while the flash warmed up.


Of course I created another Flickr group called In the fridge to collect them. The rules are quite specific.


Constraints are important.

A few years ago I became mildly obsessed with finding examples of things being described as being the new something else.


Grey is the new black, 30 is the new 40, and so on. So I started finding and collecting examples of them.


Some people collect butterflies. I collected examples of the phrase ‘x is the new y’ and I was regularly going hunting, collecting them quite intentionally, in order to make directed graphs like this one.

y is the new z (neato)

I’d look at the graph and spot interesting leads; gaps that needed filling. Tea is the new coffee and coffee is the new tea, Glorious. Friendster is the new Livejournal? What’s Livejournal the new one of? As I continued to collect them over a few weeks it grew into quite a big collection. I was quite surprised when The Boston Globe asked me if I’d extend it into something they could publish in their ‘Ideas’ supplement.

roo's in the boston globe!

They took my SVG files and employed actual graphic artists to make it prettier. My first front page. Of a supplement, but still.

[Update: I’ve just noticed this lovely new tool Built by Bloom using Twitter’s streaming API to show what people on Twitter are saying is the new something else.]

I’ve always loved this joke and for a while collected variations on it, writing them down in a list. I went on holiday recently to Poole. In Dorset? Yes, I’d recommend it to anyone. You get the idea.


So my friend Nick O’Leary and I built a website to collect these jokes and let other people contribute their own.


And because each one is on a map, you can find jokes for a specific place. It continues to attract new additions, and has expanded my pencil-and-paper list of a dozen ‘Jamaica’ jokes up to about 800 jokes over the past four years.

The Internet fridge has long been the default example of what we can expect in the near future. Imagine a fridge which knows when you need more milk… I can surf the net, cook and keep an eye on my children at the same time… Urgh.

So, I started collecting Internet Fridges. Or more accurately, pictures and mentions of Internet Fridges. Every time there’s a new Consumer Electronics show, people send me lots of links.

Pretty much every tech company makes one, but very few people seem interested in buying them.

More recently, I’ve started another ridiculous collection: photos and videos of things riding on the back of other things.


YouTube appears to be literally full of videos of things riding on the back of other things. I go digging for them, but people suggest a couple of new ones every week.

Things Riding on Things

I also maintain this grid of things riding on the back of other things. Want a photo of a monkey riding on a pig? Just find the right row and column. The more examples there are in that category, the bigger the dot.

I collect interesting links and send them out in a weekly email newsletter. As a side effect, it gives me something else (beyond the links and the subscribers) to collect; the number of Out Of Office emails I receive for each email sent.

Unsurprisingly, it spiked a couple of times during the summer. What will happen in at Christmas? I can’t wait to see.

I didn’t mention this one during the presentation, but I’ve since remembered that I used to take photographs of all the books I read every month, and write a quick review/summary of each month’s reading.

20 months of reading

I’d forgotten that one.

There are some amazing collections on the web and, unsurprisingly, many of the best ones are not maintained by me…

  • (a collection which continues to grow despite the death of our dear leader) is maintained by an Art Director at Y&R Lison.
  • is a blog which collects photos of Ross Kemp’s face, folded. Running since 2008, and recently it’s been updated nearly every day. Why Ross Kemp? Who knows. Perhaps he’s just got a very foldable face.
  • is perhaps my favourite. Peter Fletcher has been counting his sneezes since the 12th of July, 2007. Each sneeze gets its own entry, including the time and date, location, a comment, and a subjective measure of strength. Peter says

    “Think of each sneeze as a single frame in the time-lapse animation of your life. The film might depict a disproportionate amount of time spent suffering from colds, or scrambling about at the back of dusty cupboards, but the pseudo-random unpredictability of the sneeze makes it a curiously representative filter on a life.”

    “Once I had been counting sneezes for a short time, I became disturbed when I saw someone sneeze, and then not look closely at their watch or mobile phone and take out and write something … in a notebook”

    (I once interviewed Peter about this sneeze count blog, and more. I suppose the guests on the Shift Run Stop podcast, and the episodes themselves, are another sort of collection.)

So. Is there a point to all of this?

I hope so.

Putting this presentation together gave me ample opportunity for self-reflection, and I sort of want to justify myself. But:

  • I’m not going to tell you that constraints foster creativity.
  • I’m not going to tell you that curation of a public collection is an especially interesting form of co-creation in which issues of shared ownership are explored.
  • I’m not even going to tell you that by sharing a collection publicly it holds you accountable (to others and ultimately to yourself) which encourages you to keep at it.

All of those things are true, but I think it’s actually simpler than that. It’s a hobby.

Dad's handmade wooden toadstools

My dad has a stressful job, and he sometimes makes wooden toadstools to unwind. It gives his hands something interesting but unimportant to do, and helps him relax.

Now, I know what you might be thinking; this is classic procrastination.

Pencil tips

But my collections (and my Dad’s wooden toadstools) are not about intentional procrastination. ‘Sharpening pencils’ when you should be writing or drawing is risky because it’s too easy to confuse it with what you should be doing. If someone walks in on you sharpening your pencil you can claim to be just getting ready to start. If you’re collecting pictures of Colonel Gaddafi shaking hands with world leaders though (oh yes, that’s another one), then it’s pretty hard to convince anyone – let alone yourself – that you’re doing anything useful with your time.

And that’s the point. It isn’t about making something useful. Making or collecting something is not always about getting your day job done directly. Yes, it might help develop your taste, and it might even be beautiful in its own right, but the real benefit is letting your subconscious mind unwind. Not with something too taxing (or the stress returns), and not something too easy (otherwise your mind will wander). The perfect hobby is something that requires just enough attention for your conscious mind to become occupied with something interesting but unimportant, freeing your subconscious to wander around solving problems.

Think of Lester Freamon in ‘The Wire’, quietly making his dollhouse miniature furniture. It’s a perfectly absorbing activity. Other people prefer to knit (someone at W+K used to knit in meetings, which might stop working when you get too good at it). Some people write Haiku. We shouldn’t be surprised that people who spend a lot of time online have online hobbies too.

For me, my preferred way to relax is collecting things and putting them on the internet.

Thank you to everyone who heard this presentation and didn’t ask where do you find the time?

Some of my collections

I was invited to give a short lunchtime talk for a team in BBC Audio and Music (radio, to you and me) by the lovely Hugh Garry.

In a gloriously open brief, he asked me whether I’d prefer to talk about things I make or things I collect. For some reason I thought sharing a collection of my collections would be the most interesting option, and soon started putting together some examples. This morning, in a last-minute moment of self doubt, I realised how much cooler I’d have looked if I’d shared some of the hacks and tinkering projects I’ve worked on over the years. Like this and this and this and this. Not that much cooler, you say? Oh well.

Geeky things I obsessively collect and curate it is then…

I asked my wife what she thought, but she just laughed and pointed out a few extra collections I’d forgotten about and she’d never understood. How is it even possible for someone to throw away empty Altoids tins? They’re so keepable.

Just before the talk, anticipating there would be time for questions, I added a blank slide followed by a secret extra slide with my prediction of the first question that would be asked: “Where do you find the time?”. It turns out I guessed right, which got a big laugh. I’m sure the person who asked it didn’t mean it in a negative way, but it’s easily interpreted as “why do you waste your time with something I wouldn’t bother with?” and is not that different from claiming someone has too much time on their hands. So I blushingly pointed out that the question could be seen as slightly rude, and went on (hopefully not too defensively) to say that this was a very condensed view of many years of collections, very few of which have lasted very long or required very much time. Each one has taught me something and been valuable in its own way, and been more than worth the amount of time I’ve invested in it. Hard not to sound defensive though, so I also acknowledged that obviously I’m a bit of a geek, some of these things have been (sometimes short-lived) obsessions, and I wouldn’t expect other people to enjoy or value everything which I do in the same way.

We went on to discuss how the internet is a million niches, something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past few years.

Thanks to Huey for the invite. I really enjoyed it.

Playful ’09

Playful 09 was great.

Playful 09

I really enjoyed Playful 08 so was delighted to be asked back. Last year I demoed my Rock Band MIDI guitar hack. This year, rather than extend my P5 Glove project into another MIDI instrument, I decided to set myself the challenge of talking about games and films. This was perhaps a little foolish, as I know only a little bit about games and barely anything about films. However, the audience were mercifully forgiving of my ill-prepared nonsense and laughed in all the right places.

In case you missed it, here are my slides, complete with dodgy audio recording of the talk.

Thankfully for all concerned, the rest of the day was much better. Here’s some of what happened:

Playful 09 Leila at Playful Robin Burkinshaw talks about Alice and Kev Daniel Soltis at Playful James Bridle's MENACE Rex Crowle at Playful

A great day with lots to take home and think about. Thanks to Toby Barnes and everyone else at Pixel-Lab for making Playful happen.

More people who have written about it: Suw Charman-Anderson, Leila Johnston, Howard Pull, Adam Davis, Lawrence Chiles, Libby Davy, Daniel Soltis, Priyanka Kanse, Melinda Seckington and more, plus the official record: part 1, part 2 and part 3.

There is no plan

My last engagement of the year was also one of my proudest. On Wednesday, I was invited to be the guest speaker at my old school’s presentation evening. This is the annual event at which GCSE and A-Level students collect their certificates and awards for academic excellence. I helped award some of the certificates and prizes and, toward the end, give a fifteen minute talk about.. well, whatever I wanted, but it ended up being a potted history of what I’d done with myself since school plus some words of encouragement for the awardees. I wish I’d recorded it. Everything that follows is an abbreviated summary of what I said, based on the 6 pages of notes I used going into it, plus memories of the bits I improvised…

I broke the ice by reminiscing about an afternoon almost exactly 11 years ago in which some friends and I ‘borrowed’ some sort of evergreen tree from the local park in order to make our sixth form common room more festive. It certainly wasn’t a christmas tree, and it smelled of cats.

It’s hard not to be sentimental about coming back to the school. Partly because I have some genuinely warm memories of it, partly because it’s where my Dad now works (as a counsellor, offering a drop-in service for young people who need help) and partly because it’s where I met my wife, when we were taking our A-Levels together.

What do you want to be when you’re older? Have you ever been asked the question? Have you ever asked it of someone else? Do you know what your answer would be?

When I was 15, I knew exactly what I wanted to be; a lawyer. Specifically, a barrister. But it didn’t work out that way. In the end, choosing a degree ended up being about picking a subject I knew I’d enjoy more, and my hobby since I was quite young had been tinkering with computers and programming them. This was before the school offered an A-Level in ICT, so all the way through school it was purely a hobby for my own enjoyment.

In case that sounds strange, or you’ve never experienced the satisfaction of getting a computer to do exactly what you want, here’s a quote from a new book by Cory Doctorow, ‘Little Brother‘ from the end of chapter 7:

A computer is the most complicated machine you’ll ever use. It’s
made of billions of micro­-miniaturized transistors that can be
configured to run any program you can imagine. But when you sit
down at the keyboard and write a line of code, those transistors do
what you tell them to.

Most of us will never build a car. Pretty much none of us will
ever create an aviation system. Design a building. Lay out a city.

Those are complicated machines, those things, and they’re off­
limits to the likes of you and me. But a computer is like, ten times
more complicated, and it will dance to any tune you play. You can
learn to write simple code in an afternoon. Start with a language
like Python, which was written to give non­-programmers an
easier way to make the machine dance to their tune. Even if you
only write code for one day, one afternoon, you have to do it.
Computers can control you or they can lighten your work ­­ if you
want to be in charge of your machines, you have to learn to write

When I was picking a subject in which to take a degree, I realised that if I wanted to really understand computers, and maybe even get a job doing the things I most enjoyed, I could study Computer Science. I found a few really good courses which looked like they’d be a lot of fun. Even better, I found one which was sponsored by IBM; 3 days a week at university, 2 days a week at work, less holiday than most students, but also fewer debts.

After I graduated IBM offered me a full-time job and I accepted, working first as a tester (finding bugs), then service (fixing them and keeping clients calm), then development (writing code and creating the bugs), then emerging technology (first-of-a-kinds and proof-of-concepts, with a lot of freedom to explore new stuff). That freedom to explore brand new territory is how I ended up calling myself a Metaverse Evangelist; I got interested and involved, together with my friend Ian and eventually with a wider team across the world, with how IBM and its clients could use virtual worlds.

In total, I enjoyed 10 long and productive years in different roles in the Hursley lab before I realised it was time to think about moving on.

Earlier this year, I joined the BBC as Portfolio Executive, Social Media – BBC Vision. Social media includes tools for discussing and sharing information, and BBC Vision is the division of the BBC that handles TV. So I look after social online stuff for BBC TV. Half of the room I’m speaking to (that is, the half that are not parents and teacher) probably live their lives on some combination of Bebo, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, MSN, etc. It may seem strange to think that a huge part of my job is understanding how the BBC can use those things, plus other social stuff (blogs, message-boards, chat, rating, comments, games, …) effectively. That job exists now, but a few years ago I could never have guessed I’d be doing it.

Which leads us back to the question, what do you want to be when you’re older? I pointed out that it’s very hard to answer, because you’re making a prediction about what you’ll enjoy in the future.

My ‘career’ has included software testing, service, development, emerging technology, social media. Each of those things has, for me, led to the next, but it’s not a map, it’s a history. It’s one possible route to have taken to get somewhere I didn’t even plan to go in the first place. The job I’m doing now didn’t exist last year. The virtual worlds role was one that a colleague and I created ourselves.

So what would I have wanted to know, if I were in the room having just received my certificates? Well, I’m going to share some secrets from the so-called grown-up world.

It’s OK not to have a plan. In fact, there is no plan. [1] Your parents and teachers may look like they know what they’re doing, and they may expect you to have your life mapped out, but here’s the shocker: they’re all making it up as they go along! It’s perfectly OK to do what you think is fun and interesting. Of course, choosing the things you want to focus on means you’ll need to know enough about the world to know what you find fun and interesting, which means you’ll have to be open minded rather than passive. Most importantly you’ll need to be flexible and prepared to change.

I ended by saying that I hoped they’d have as much fun as I’ve had. I’d been wondering about a closing line (everything I’d thought of leading up to the event had been sickeningly trite and glib. “What do you want to be when you’re older? I hope you’ll be happy” just wasn’t going to work), but somehow, just as I was finishing off, I got into a nice little “I hope you… ” pattern. I hope you’ll have as much fun as I’ve had… so it felt quite natural to end on “I hope you’ll change the world” [2].

1 – Last month, I shared what I was planning to talk about during the speech, and asked what other people would have wanted to tell their younger selves. The response was staggering. I could have spent hours going through it with them in detail, and really wanted to. If you’ve found this post because you saw the talk, please do take the time to read it. At the risk of sounding like a grown up, I wish I’d seen all of that when I was your age.

2 – As I sat down, I realised where I’d seen that recently; the introduction to Little Brother ends with “He [Cory Doctorow] hopes you’ll use technology to change the world”. Considering that I was unintentionally borrowing Cory’s phrase, I’m glad I missed the bit about technology.

ReLIVE08 Closing Keynote – When It’s All Over We Still Have to Clear Up

Back from two days in Milton Keynes for ReLIVE08, the Open University’s conference on Researching and Living in Virtual Worlds.

The abstract said that

Roo Reynolds has offered to not pre-prepare any slides for his closing keynote, but instead create a short presentation on the fly during the other sessions. Drawing on the notes and photographs taken
during the conference, he’ll act as a virtual cheat-sheet for the event.
He’ll share his notes, including what he found most interesting and what he’ll take away from it, wrapping up the two days by distilling any key themes and considering what we’ve learned about learning. Perhaps he can pull the threads together into something which will make sense. It makes predicting what he’s going to say particularly tricky, but it could be fun.

The results from this afternoon are embedded below. I’ll let you decide how well I met my (scary, self-imposed) brief. I would say that I didn’t take as many photos as I planned (I either need a better camera or a portable lighting rig), and I ended up trawling my own back catalog of photos to illustrate certain points. Also, I was a smidgen more didactic than I’d intended. I was (and am) very tired. In fact, I was up at 2:30 am this morning pulling together my notes from yesterday. Four hours sleep is not enough for me and perhaps being tired made me more challenging – and less congratulatory – than I could have been.

More importantly, my apologies for only drawing on a very small selection of the papers presented at the conference. With 4 or 5 streams running at once (and especially with the rooms spread across the campus) it just wasn’t possible to see everything. Much of what I did see really impressed me and I really enjoyed the conference.

View SlideShare presentation

WebcastUpdate: a video of the presentation, with the slides nicely inter-cut, is now online.

Want more?

ARG panel at Virtual Worlds London

I’d hoped to take notes during the ARG panel I was moderating at Virtual Worlds London this week, and even planned create the slides on the fly. No chance. Being on stage seems to reduce my IQ by at least 20 points. While I can pay attention to what is being said and take notes (I did quite a bit of that on both days of the conference) it’s not possible (for me, at least) to do all of that and ask questions.

Instead, I recorded the audio, took some notes on paper and threw some summary slides together on the way home. Here they are.

Thanks to Dan, Kim and Foe for being excellent panelists.

Current Cost presentation at Open Tech 2008

Here’s the presentation Nick and I gave at Open Tech 2008 yesterday.

SlideShare | View with comments at SlideShare

I really enjoyed the whole event and will try to put up some notes up about it tomorrow.

LEGO is full of WIN – my Interesting 2008 talk

Here are the slides and audio for the talk I gave at Interesting 2008 yesterday. 30 slides in 3 minutes.

SlideShare | View

I’ll post my notes on the day later when my brain recovers a bit more. Rest assured it every bit as interesting as last year. Update: my notes are here.

For now, see my Flickr set, interesting2008 on Flickr and
on Technorati.

Update: the Guardian are hosting a series of videos of the Interesting 2008 talks. Here’s my talk.

The Backchannel

I’m presenting at the Meeting Professionals International event in London in April: the Europeans Meetings and Events Conference. (Yes, the meta-ness of speaking at a conference about conferences is not lost on me).

I was invited to do something on Web 2.0 and ‘where is technology headed’. After some thought, I’ve written up some notes about social networking, user generated content and virtual worlds in relation to presentations, conferences and events. Inevitably, I ended up thinking mainly about the Backchannel, in its many current forms. Much of that is catching up with what’s been going on in the past few years.

Photo of the Academy Workshop at the Annenberg Center for Communications at the Unversity of Southern California by Justin

Some of this goes back a long way. In 2003 the New York Times quoted a number of internet thought-leaders…

Some people, of course, ignore speakers entirely by surfing the Web or checking their e-mail — a practice that has led some lecturers to plead for connectionless auditoriums or bans on laptop use. But others are genuinely
interested in a lecturer’s topic and want to talk concurrently about what is being said. They may also like to pass around links to Web sites that relate to, and may refute, a speaker’s point. For them, wireless technology allows a back channel of communication, a second track that reveals their thoughts and feedback and records it all for future reference.

“We’re just moving the corridor into the room and time-shifting it by 30 minutes,” said Mr. [Cory] Doctorow, who takes notes and posts them to his Weblog, or blog, during conferences, enabling people to follow the
speaker and Mr. Doctorow’s take on the speaker at the same time.

“To me, it’s a little irritating, frankly,” said Stewart Butterfield, chief executive of Ludicorp, a company that is developing [Game] Neverending, a multiplayer online game [which would go on to become Flickr]”

Joi Ito: ”I want to make something that I can put in a suitcase and take to conferences,” he said. He describes it as a subversive device that will get people thinking about the significance of the back channel. From the chat
room, he said, ‘”you could send something like, ‘Stop pontificating.'”

That NYT piece also quoted Clay Shirky on in-room chat as a social tool. He has a great paper on the subject on from December 2002:

“once the meeting got rolling, the chat room became an invaluable tool”

“Group conversations are exercises in managing interruptions. When someone is speaking, the listeners are often balancing the pressure to be polite with a desire to interrupt, whether to add material, correct or contradict the speaker, or introduce an entirely new theme. These interruptions are often tangential, and can lead to still more interruptions or follow-up comments by still other listeners. Furthermore, conversations that proceed by interruption are governed by the people best at interrupting. People who are shy, polite, or like to take a moment to compose their thoughts before speaking are at a disadvantage.” … “The chat room undid these effects”

One of the interesting things about Clay Shirky’s work on in-meeting chat was the large shared screen showing the chat to everyone (in addition to the personal window into the chat.) Here we see that happening at a Le Blogs 2.0 panel…

Photo of on-screen backchannel at Les Blogs 2.0 by Bjoern.

Turning the backchannel from a private thing into a public part of the event is something Cote thought about when blogging about the use of Twitter at conference:

“Things get fascinating when people project that backchannel in a public place,if not right behind the speaker. The idea is to weave the “front-channel” and backchannel together as needed. In doing so, the hope is to add even more value to the talk and conference. This kind of thing freaks the crap out of some (most?) presenters, while others are neutral, and some like it.”

Elizabeth Lane Lawley describes herself as a Backchannel Queen:

“I like the IRC banter—and not just for its entertainment value. I find that particularly when a presentation might be rough, or something I’ve heard before, that the feedback loop provided by the other participants, snarky or
not, often helps me see the content in a new light, and immediately increases the value I take out of the experience.”

Teachers are getting into backchannels too:

“The backchannel has really become my favorite tool of choice when I’m presenting. I’ve purchased an inexpensive ad-free chat room at Chatzy that is password protected and use it for my backchannels when I present. I like to find two people to help: one to serve as Google Jockey (a/k/a Link dropper) and another to serve as a moderator — posing questions to me”

All of which brings us nicely up to date. I won’t be quoting all of that in the talk, but it’s now safely in my head. For the glimpse into the future, I’ll be bringing in virtual worlds and and their use in the backchannel (and more) too, but that’s a conversation for another post.

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