Creative Lives — Talking shop: Anna Goss fills us in on her role as product lead of the Co-op’s digital division
Working at Co-op’s digital division as a product lead, Anna Goss and her team develop and build digital products directly inspired by the people who will use them – whether that be the public or their Co-op colleagues. When she’s not commuting to work in Manchester, you’ll probably find her perusing the aisles in her hometown of London – all in the name of research, of course. It’s an all-encompassing role; from identifying problems and analysing data to rapidly prototyping and finally creating products. For Anna, an interest in understanding people is just as important as a basic knowledge of the ‘raw plumbing of the internet’ in creating products that serve a real purpose.
Product lead, Co-op Digital (January 2017–present)
Manchester for work, London for home
Product manager, Pivotal Labs (2016–2017)
Producer and Senior Producer, With Associates (2013–2016)
Marketing Manager, Gail’s Artisan Bakery (2011–2013)
Artist and Music manager, GoodBooks; Sky Larkin; Sportsday Megaphone (2005–2010)
BA English Literature, University of Sussex (2008–2011)
How would you describe your job?
I’m a product lead and product manager for Co-op Digital. We’re the digital division of the Co-op Group, which has a few different businesses: Food, Insurance, Legal Services, Funeralcare and Electrical. We work in multidisciplinary product teams consisting of a product lead, delivery manager, user researcher, interaction designer, content designer and engineers. Those product teams form around problems or opportunities within one of the businesses, and we try to get people from the business involved full time with the team too. We can then combine domain expertise with user centred design to build something really good.
My job is, in a way, to help the team figure out what’s next. Product managers exist in the intersection between users, business and technology. We’re responsible for building a product that meets the needs of users, meets business goals, and doesn’t fall over from a technical perspective. We’re not necessarily experts in all of those things, but we need to have a good enough handle on them all to ensure that we’re building a good product and staying on the right trajectory.
What does a typical working day look like?
On Mondays and Fridays I go for a run then work from home. On Tuesdays I get up early and get on the 7:20am train to Manchester, where Co-op is based. Then I stay in Manchester till Thursday afternoon – I rent a room about a 20 minute bike ride from work. In both places I tend to run a working day of around 8:30 or 9:00 to 5:00 or 5:30. Co-op Digital is the most flexible place I’ve worked since I’ve been working for myself.
We work on one thing at a time, and what the day looks like depends on what phase the product is in – Discovery, Alpha or Beta. Discovery is when we don’t know much, so we go out to try to understand the domain and the problem. That’s a research heavy phase, everything’s pretty woolly, so it involves a lot of team collaboration to try and understand the users, the problems they’re facing and the opportunities we have in front of us.
Alpha stage is when we think we know the problem and try to build something to test our hypotheses. We start designing, building software and testing a product until we’ve built something that meets user needs. It’s still research heavy, but we know a lot more.
Beta is when we’ve decided that what we built in Alpha meets user needs and is viable for the business, so it’s time to start building something that could scale. At the moment I’m working on a couple of products with our Food business in the very early Alpha stage, so there’s lots of research and trips to stores, engagement with people in the rest of the business, and a lot of writing and drawing stuff on whiteboards with other people in the team to try to figure out what we need to do.
“We’re trying to create things that haven’t existed before, so it helps to be interested in the future and what we want it to look like.”
How did you land your current job?
I watched what the team at GDS (the Government Digital Service) had done over the years and was really interested in it. Then in October 2015 a lot of the leadership team from GDS left and went to start Co-op Digital. I applied for a job there when With Associates (the agency I was working at) closed down, but then decided not to pursue it after the phone interview – the thought of working in Manchester freaked me out a bit! But I didn’t want to close any doors, so when I was in Manchester to visit my cousin a month or so later, I emailed Tom Loosemore (director of digital services) and asked if he’d be free for coffee. After we met up I knew I wanted to work at Co-op Digital, and tried a few ways to get in before going down the traditional route of applying when they started hiring for product managers again. And it all came off ok! I don’t know what would’ve happened if I’d not emailed Tom. Always try for the meeting!
Where does the majority of your work take place?
Mostly in the office when I’m in Manchester. The Digital team have a building called Federation House that’s got lovely high ceilings, lots of light, wooden floors and walls you can write on. Most days are probably a 50-50 split between computers and drawing and talking – it’s nice to mix it up. I usually try to get out to stores to do research on one of my London days to maximise time with the team when I’m in Manchester.
How collaborative is your role?
Very! My colleague Andy wrote last year that as a product manager “You talk a lot. You listen more.” A lot of the job is about balancing inputs – from users, from colleagues in the team, from colleagues in other bits of the business, from the market, from usage metrics – and weighing them up to work out what the best thing to do is. That’s not something you can do on your own.
‘Chop Chop’: a mobile app for Sainsbury’s, worked on while at Pivotal Labs
‘Chop Chop’: a mobile app for Sainsbury’s, worked on while at Pivotal Labs
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most has to be working with such smart people; figuring out problems, working out ways to solve them, and then actually doing it. I geekily love the data aspects of launching a product: looking at data to work out what’s being used, what isn’t, and ways to solve it. The least is expenses and corporate IT systems. It takes me about 10 minutes to download a payslip.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Can I pick two? One when I was at Pivotal Labs. I worked with a US insurance company in their Northern Ireland office. They set up an internal product development studio but weren’t sure whether it was going well or not. So another product manager and I went over there and interviewed lots of people who worked there including senior stakeholders to try and find out what was and wasn’t going well. We helped them set up some Objectives and Key Results – a goal setting framework which can help measure performance. We didn’t build a web product, but it was great getting to know the people well, and to see properly under the hood of the organisation.
I’m only three months into Co-op but I’m having a brilliant time. We’ve done two discoveries now with our Food business. I’ve worked in stores a couple of times to get to know our users. We’re looking at digital solutions for our colleagues working in stores, which is hard work but very insightful. And we’ve worked really rapidly to prototype stuff that we think could make colleagues’ lives a lot easier.
What skills are essential to your job?
An open mind, patience, curiosity, a sense of humour, lack of ego, ability to prioritise and talk to people of all levels. And I’d add in understanding the internet and people. We’re trying to create things that haven’t existed before, so it helps to be interested in imagining the future and what we might want it to look like.
“Reading novels and poetry generally means you have an interest in experiences beyond your own. Making good stuff for the web requires that too.”
Do you run any side projects alongside your job?
I have a tonne of ideas all early in execution. I just started a project about helping people with their money, both practically and in terms of attitudes and philosophies called Checksies. I’m also running a money workshop for kids alongside that.
I run what could be called a self-help group with a bunch of friends called KPI Day (a joke about key performance indicators). We meet for a day every few months and everyone gets half an hour to talk about something that’s on their mind, work or personal. Then we help each other by offering a new perspective and help figure out how to help them move forward. It’s like cheap therapy with your mates, or a pub trip where the conversation doesn’t meander. We’re trying to work out how we can share that idea with other people, because having a formal-ish structure to an informal support network is great.
What tools do you use most for your work?
A Macbook Air for hardware with a mechanical keyboard and an ergonomic mouse (sometimes I get RSI-ish symptoms). Gmail; Google Docs; Keynote; Trello; 1Password for all the passwords; Evernote for all the notes, (though I’m wondering about moving to Ulysses) and a square medium-sized Moleskine notebook. I try to avoid taking my laptop to meetings.
Value add: show and tell from another team at Co-op Digital
Anna doing research in a Co-op Food in-store bakery
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I didn’t know the answer to this so I asked my mum. Between us we came up with: wanting to “control all the money” (which in grown up terms probably means being the Governor of the Bank of England), a car designer, an author (I wrote a children’s book when I was nine and sent it to Penguin. They sent me a nice poster to accompany the rejection letter) and a football manager.
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
My dad was an early Apple adopter, so I had a Macintosh Plus in my bedroom from a pretty young age. I used it to play “Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego”. Dad worked from home and used Compuserve to access the internet – one day he showed my brother and I that afternoon's football scores on the computer and then printed them out. Mind blown.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Reading novels and poetry generally means you have an interest in experiences beyond your own. Making good stuff for the web requires that too. I don’t think the two directly play in to each other, though.
“Being bold enough to make decisions rather than allowing everything to float along is something that I had to learn.”
What were your first jobs?
I worked in the local music shop selling sheet music, classical CDs and violins to people on Saturdays. When I was 17 I started managing a friend’s band, who signed to Sony BMG about a month before I took my A levels. So my first real job was managing them, and a few other bands I picked up along the way. I did that for about three years. After university I went to work at Gail’s Artisan Bakery in marketing.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Doing my A levels and managing a band made for a pretty intense year. Because I was so young, a lot of people in music helped me out. My friends Amy and Ollie both worked in A&R (the people who sign bands to labels and publishing companies). Amy didn’t sign the band, but looked out for me and gave me a lot of advice. Ollie did sign them, and we spoke on the phone probably five times a day for the next two years. Between the two of them they kept me sane and stopped me from making a few mistakes.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Broken record, but again, managing bands. I learnt roadmapping; how to manage stakeholders, run events, form teams, maintain morale and momentum, manage people, prioritise, think strategically and run a budget – the works.
GoodBooks, the band Anna managed, signed to Sony BMG
Anna co-managed Sky Larkin (with Gareth Dobson), signed to Wichita Recordings
What skills have you learnt along the way?
The skill set doesn’t shift a lot for a product manager, but the landscape around us does, so keeping up and staying ahead of it is important. Being bold enough to make decisions rather than allowing everything to float along is something that I had to learn; I’m co-operative by nature but consensus doesn’t always work, and that’s where a product manager often needs to come in.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Getting stakeholders to come on ‘the journey’ with you is sometimes tricky. At With Associates we sometimes built a website in a vacuum away from the client before delivering the ‘finished’ version, even if we were telling them that it was an iterative process. In retrospect, I wish we had done more workshops with those clients. It would have helped us show where we were adding value outside of delivering a piece of internet.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Pretty much! To a certain extent, I fell into product management by accident, but nothing’s surprised me too much.
House Seven: A website for Soho House members, worked on while at With Associates. Design by Brendan Gatens.
What would you like to do next?
Keep doing good stuff at Co-op and get some momentum on those side projects.
Could you do this job forever?
Given the current pace of technological, cultural and social change, I’m not sure how helpful thinking about forever is. I have an idle daydream about chopping wood on a remote Scottish island, so that probably speaks to not always wanting to do computers for a living. For now, I’d be happy with this job for the next 5-10 years, although it might shift more into consultancy than full time employment.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
There’s a few. Some remain in product management and continue working on different products. Some go into Head of Product roles. Some form start ups. Some move into more freelance and consultancy type work and help organisations with the dreaded “digital transformation”. I’m probably somewhere between the former and the latter.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a product manager?
Understand the internet in terms of raw plumbing: how websites work (hosting, domains, CMS). Upskill as much as you can in other areas like design and development – enough to be able to have conversations with people who are experts in those fields. Learn a bit about business and a lot about people (subscribe to the newsletter Exponential View by Azeem Azhar). Read Lean Start-Up by Eric Ries and Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf. Try to practise what you learned in those books by starting up your own thing – you’ll accelerate your learning probably more so than at any other job.
It’s pretty rare for someone to become a product manager straight out of school or university – people tend to have done another job first. It’s worth bearing in mind that the junior jobs might not be there, but if you’re user focused, business savvy and get experience working in close proximity with the internet you’ll be well placed to move into a product management role.