Digital Works

Episode 001 - Mike Harris

February 10, 2020 Digital Works / Mike Harris Season 1 Episode 1
Digital Works
Episode 001 - Mike Harris
Show Notes Transcript

In this first episode we grapple with trying to be concise, talk about recent Ofcom research around how young people are engaging with the internet, Ash speaks with Mike Harris (former Tech Lead at the Royal Academy of Arts) as he reflects on his 2 years in the sector, Andy looks back on how digital has changed over the past 14 years and we talk about the importance of mobile experiences.

Ash:

Welcome to the Digital Works podcast . My name's Ash. In this series of podcasts, we're going to be looking at what digital means in all its many forms in the cultural sector. In this episode I'm joined by my colleague and friend Andy Hartwell and I also sit down for a conversation with Mike Harris who at the time of recording was the technical lead at the Royal Academy of arts. Enjoy. Maybe a helpful starting point is to have a little bit of a chat about what we mean by digital because I think over the last decade it's been used as a label for a whole range of different types of activities and technologies and mindsets. Um, and that's probably an appropriate word to use in all of those things. I often go back to the definition from Tom Loosemore who was the, the writer of the first ever government digital strategy. He also worked as government digital service's deputy director and he defined digital as applying the culture processes, business models and technologies of the internet era to respond to people's raised expectations, which might sound slightly vague but I think is a useful definition because it catches everything that I understand digital to mean, digital to me is not just websites or pieces of technology. Actually there is quite a significant change in thinking and behavior around that as well. Andy you've, you've run a digital agency for almost 14 years now. And have you noticed a shift over that time what people mean when they, when they use the word digital or what people have understood a digital agency to do?

Andy:

Yes, massively. How to summarize that. I guess it's the perception and the importance of, of, of what it is and I guess the respect it now commands. When we first started out it was a kind of ancillary thing. We set up just as accessibility and web standards were starting to come into play. Previously it was all flash websites with tiny text and flashy swirly things. So it was not usable at all. There were pretty brochure-like websites. And the importance of that user centered approach has grown and grown. Because it's core to everything w e're doing now. It has to be user friendly. It has to be u ser f ocused, and it's no longer just something that helps your marketing efforts a little bit. It's something that runs your business and helps run your business and supports everything you do and it touches every part of society now, essentially.

Ash:

Yeah, and I mean we'll come onto this a bit in a moment, but I think the digital revolution, there might be groans at that term , but I think it is genuinely, it has been a revolution . You know, it has , fundamentally altered and in some cases destroyed whole industries. You look at news media, the way that people access information, the way that people find out about the world has been revolutionized over the last decade

Andy:

it's been a very exciting time to be alive, but also terrifying. And at the same time, there's never a dull moment. There's always something to consider or something to debate about because it's the wild West in a lot of parts, isn't it?

Ash:

Absolutely. And I think that the only certainty in digital too is the fact that you're never gonna know it all. And the fact that it's always going to be changing. I don't think you can ever take a snapshot and say, okay, we can settle here fairly confident that the way that we're behaving and the things that we're doing at this moment, again, to be relevant and appropriate for even the next two years.

Andy:

And that always gives me a massive headache because running a digital agency like , Oh, it's , it's kind of nice at the moment. We're doing good stuff. We're working in a good space, but you can't, you just can't relax. You can't ever think, yeah, we can . We can sit still in there . Which yeah, it is a headache, but it's a nice headache. It's a fast paced industry isn't it?

Ash:

Yes, and I think that was one of the reasons that we started this podcast. You know, digital works is also a series of events that we've been running for the last three years or so. But I always find the format slightly difficult to describe because it's sort of somewhere between a lecture and a workshop and an unconference and it's seminar.

Andy:

When you started thinking about the idea, Ash joined Substrakt few years ago, four years ago, and said, I go to these conferences and all the best conversations are the ones that happen after the conference in the hallway while you're grabbing a coffee. So that was your kind of agenda there to bring that dialogue into the, into the sessions.

Ash:

Yeah. The, the idea of that peer to peer sharing and debate is just as valuable and useful as sitting and listening to a subject matter expert telling you about a really successful project. Actually it can sometimes be more operationally useful to hear about the things that people have tried that didn't work and the reasons behind that and actually having the time and space to dig into that was , was one of the fundamental reasons why digital works as a series of events started. Obviously the downside of having events is that they happen at a certain time in a certain place and that restricts the people that can attend. And for the past year or so few people have been asking if we're planning to do any sort of other manifestations of, of digital works, whether that's long form articles or videos or a podcast, and I said I would do a podcast and now we're here, we are doing a podcast and the format of this is probably going to evolve a bit over, you know, as we find our feet as we work out what works and what doesn't. But the, the core of of each episode is going to be me sitting down and talking with someone who works in digital, in the cultural space. Um, I've already got interviews in the can with people who've worked at the Royal Academy, people who've worked to the audience, agency accessibility experts. I'm sitting down with people at the VNA over the, over the coming weeks . So hopefully there should be a really interesting range of perspectives that we're able to share. I think also this what we're doing now, this sort of introductory blather , uh , it gives us a chance to,

Andy:

This is not a concise 10 minute intro

Ash:

We'll talk around the interviews. I think we'll, we'll debate some of the topics that come up, but also this gives us a chance to respond to other questions that people might have things in the news, you know, topics of merit and current interest. And Andy arrived an initial talking point . What was the slightly depressing stat

Andy:

actually, you mentioned about how, how digital has changed in 14 years. 14 years ago, no one was doing websites on mobile phones. They just couldn't access the web on your phone or you could, but it was separate internet essentially. Yes, yes. Um, but there was a BBC news article about it . Most children sleep with their phones next to their bed and then it went on to say the average age for kids to start having a phone these days is seven, which kind of blew my mind. You have three kids, one of which is seven. Yeah, she's eight actually, and she hasn't got a phone and I don't imagine having one for a few years. I'm convinced otherwise by it , but she does like to steal mine and send texts to back to me and that sort of thing. So yeah, there's clearly a need for it. But yeah, that's, that's a game changer really.

Ash:

That is a complete shift in how, I mean the subject of what these devices are doing to our brains is far larger than we can discuss here, but it changes everything. It changes attention patterns, it changes the way that people view the world. I guess. I mean as a parent is the fact that your eight year old daughter could have a device that allows her to access the internet and everything on it. How do you, how do you approach that as a parent? I'm not a parent that feels scary . I'm terrified about it. But yeah, I think the other stat in there was that, that , that the average time spent by these children on the mobile device is three hours, 18 minutes a day. So yeah. What , what are they, what are they doing and how did you police it? You can't, I think that's, you just can't. So it's about kind of embedding I guess a good moral compass as early on as you can so that the kids themselves know what they should be watching, what they shouldn't, what's right, what's wrong. Yeah . But , but yeah, it's scary. You get, you get exposed to a lot more, a much earlier age than we ever dreamed of. And I was digging into this, this piece of research. It's a piece of research that I've come of done if you want to look it up. Um , using the hashtag and making sense of media, which looked at digital independence , online activism, girl gamers and much more, I'm looking into the latest trends in children's media use and attitudes. And there are a few other stats which sprung out to me. One that 24% of three to four year olds have their own tablets, which you know that's a , that's a quarter of preschool children having their own tablet again is that, is that good is that we just, the world has changed and this is how the world is and this is how everyone interacts with the world. You know, we watched TV as kids, we read books. Are those activities now just happening through tablets and we're just having a bit of a moral panic. I don't, I don't know with that fact that I guess the quality of a lot of the content and the applications on those iPads are, there's a lot more thought and effort going into making sure they're well considered and appropriate for that age range and because of the wealth of that, those content, those applications, then it is a natural space for a kid to spend a lot of his time, I guess for her time and yeah, I guess when we were little, there was children's TV on TV for a couple of hours a day. You had to watch what was on any given time. Yeah . If I'd try and make Casper my one of my youngest to do that, he just got no patience for it. But I want to watch something different. But this is what song you have to watch . No chance. And I think that, you know, with what we've described in there that change, that shift in expectations, shift in attention patterns. You know, I guess if you're working at a cultural organization, we're talking about children here who may be your primary audience may not be, but ultimately today's children are tomorrow's consumers, tomorrow's cultural audiences and the fact that all of these young people are accessing or using digital devices, accessing the internet at an earlier age and for increasing amounts of time, surely there are implications therefore for sort of how they are going to then engage with cultural experiences, what their expectations are going to be. I'm not saying that no one's going to have the patience to sit through a three hour play or concert, but I wonder whether, what you just touched on there, you know these devices and platforms allow content creators to more specifically target audiences with content that has been created just for them. So as a, as a consumer, as an audience member, you know Casper, your three year old is used to, for him, very high quality, very relevant content being produced and does that, does that create a much greater expectation around the sort of specificity of, of cultural product or you go, Oh this isn't, this isn't really for me actually I'm just going to stay home and watch Netflix and how , how do people, how do people respond to that? Do you sort of make the argument? I think perhaps justifiably that cultural experiences for the on the whole are alive experiences and they are a different thing. They are not intended to be consumed through a screen and there is a power in the live experience and you shouldn't necessarily try to go up against Netflix who has a content budget of 60 billion a year. It's a war for attention. How do you get people to value what you're doing enough to make them leave the house when there is this pile of content?

Andy:

And I feel, I mean, I feel confident that actually you're never gonna be able to change that, that live experience, that going somewhere, being somewhere, being surrounded by other people, engaging in a lot of experience that you're all sharing in that same moment. I think my kids are really excited when they're in that sort of situation and they can tell the difference that, okay, we're in, we've , we've done that, that's exciting. So I think it's all about complementing that experience. I really, yeah, I'm not yet nervous that we're all going to be locked away in our turn into being tube fed. So , um, so yeah, I'm confident that we're not quite there yet. I think there's still a really nice balance. So cultural organizations can be safe that , that they, yeah, they need to, there's clear need to up our games in what we , what we're offering around the experience. But experience is still,

Ash:

that's what still gets people's juices flowing, isn't it? Perhaps the challenge is in communicating what their experience involves and making it look as exciting and meaningful as it is. When people are used to sort of these really, really high quality pieces of advertising around all the content platforms. I think that's probably, for me, that's where the competition is. You know, people putting out a 22nd trailer for a forthcoming, whatever that makes it look incredible, you know, makes it look like something that people are going to block out their weekend to sit down and watch 15 episodes of back to back. That's where the point of competition comes, I think with or for cultural organizations is rather than someone sitting down and watching bingeing or host areas or something, cultural organizations need to be presenting and viable alternative. As she says, humans are fundamentally social creatures and cultural experiences allow them to exercise that. But also humans are fundamentally lazy and there's a big TV and everyone's house or a small TV and everyone's pocket and that's going to be the easy thing to look at first. Anyway. That's children mobile phones and the effect on society and cultural audiences for the next 20 years. But I think there's a , there's a a really important consideration there. You know, the idea of particularly mobile experiences I think has been danced around in the sector for quite a long time. I think that the research that we've just touched on around device usage, usage patterns for younger people, I think that, you know, there's going to be a sudden lurch in that. And I think unless you're offering high quality mobile experiences, whether that's around advertising your thing, whether that's around allowing people to engage in your thing, whether that's around allowing people to buy a ticket to your thing, I think that is gonna become a real key point of differentiation. Because if we talk purely in consumer expectation terms, we are creating, if we, if not, if we haven't already created a generation of people who access everything through a mobile device. But it I think it is something that the sector is going to need to more directly address. I mean, you know we receive briefs all the time saying we want to be, you know, we want a new website. It needs to be mobile first. But when you actually start to unpick what people mean by that, I'm not sure they can always explain it to you. And frustratingly, we still run into the reality that most people are viewing their organization's websites at work, which is usually on a desktop machine and no matter how much people try to remind themselves that most of their users are not accessing the sort of digital platforms in the same way it does feel that individual experience sat in an office as slightly ropey desktop running a slightly old version of Microsoft edge becomes the most important way of viewing these, these experiences, which, which is obviously a huge problem. You know we spoke earlier about the idea of of user centered design, about the idea of responding to people's raised expectations. In both of those statements. The, the use , the actual user experience and the actual user's expectations is the thing that needs to be responded to. And I think that that more than anything I think is the problem that cultural, digital experiences run into is they're still fairly beholden. It seems to internal priorities ahead of any external perspective. I think the , the idea is that we will try and have a bit of a discussion of that nature in each episode. And so I would really like to hear what people think. I'd really like to hear your responses to what Andy and I have just discussed and also your suggestions for what we might discuss in future episodes. Um, so we are on Twitter, I am at big little things. Um, and digital works itself has a handle which is slightly more convoluted. It is at digital underscore works underscore, don't forget the second underscore because apparently digital works as a thing has been taken in many different forms in the suggested Twitter handle was like digital works one, nine, seven, seven, 3:00 AM . so we've gone with it . The classic Devin underscore . Um, so digital underscore works underscore , um, if you want to respond to what we said or suggest an area of discussion for, for a future episode. I said earlier that interviews, discussions, conversations with digital professionals in the cultural sector, very much going to form the heart of each episode. Um , I sat down with our first guest just before Christmas. Uh, Mike Harris is, or was the, he hasn't died. Um, he's just doing it, doing a different job now. He was technical lead at the Royal Academy of arts. He has since left the Royal Academy and now works at a startup which does personalized children's books. Mike is a really great interviewee, so hopefully you'll enjoy our conversation. Thanks for being the first a victim on this new

Mike Harris:

podcast. Um, yeah, and I think I, I thought it's, you've always been there . It's slightly fascinating figure to me, I think because of the , the , the path that your career has taken into the arts. And we can talk about that a bit in, in, in a second. Um, and also I think it's interesting cause you're , you've been at a big Royal institution for a couple of years now and I think given that you're leaving in a couple of weeks, maybe I could be more candid or something. You're looking for all the insights, gossip and things . Okay . So we'll say what do you come to the end of something you inevitably reflect . So it'd be interesting to , to tell her a bit about that as well. But I , I guess maybe if we start with, start with your career because you're not a , it's not like you've always worked in the cultural sector, in the heritage sector or even in digital. No. So I'll give you the very quick things . So yeah , I'm , I'm, I'm tech lead at the Royal Academy of arts and um, yeah , you might think that you have to sort of do a massive arts background to get into that. But I started off my career in banking for 10 years. That was pretty interesting. And then decided that , uh , banking wasn't maybe where I wanted my life to go. Uh, I taught myself to code, took some time out and went into an intensive bootcamp . Uh , and then it ended up in a couple of different startups. I was in a very tiny education startup for a short while and then was a company called Moo who do , uh , online printed business cards. And then the great thing about working in tech and in digital is you can, you can kind of work in any industry. Everybody needs a website, everybody needs some kind of tech. And this job offer came up at the Royal Academy of arts. And I looked at it and I was like, wow , that's, that's, that's just fantastic. And it was the right, you know , uh, it was the right level who was in charge of a few people, you know, if the salary is obviously important. I mean, I know the arts doesn't pay as well as others, but it was still a reasonable salary. So it was , you know , the balance of sacrificing that for a meaningful job was, was a good balance. And yeah. What an awesome, amazing organization. I didn't think when I was sat working in banking 10 or so years ago that would ever dream of being in an organization like this. And yeah , I've been doing here, it does feel a bit like , a little bit unreal. I feel I've sort of cheated my way in that there are so many people here or who are desperate to get into the cultural sector who you know , have to work very, very hard in, you know, in the arts world to try and get these jobs. And um , yeah, I feel incredibly lucky to sort of a snuck in the back door just by being able to type on a computer. W when do you, when do you join the art ? Cause I think it's, it's less common for cultural institutions to have in house sort of digital technical capacity. Was it, was it a new thing for the RA or were you filling someone else's? No, so the RA launched their main website in, I think it was like 2013, 2014. Uh, they did it with an external agency called eight flight and they worked with IDEO and the big design agency. And I think they won lots of awards and they used that as a basis to set up an internal tech team. And they then had a sort of failed project of trying to redo ticketing and membership for a few years , um, which is why the role came up again. So , uh, yeah, there wasn't setting up a team, but there was definitely, there was this project that hadn't worked out. And so one of the sort of main things in the job spec that I looked at was to , uh, you know, help the team implement a new , um , sort of CRM ticketing membership system. So that was sort of the big headline , uh, sort of draw or aim of the aim of the job? Um, yeah , looking around the road , definitely there's quite few . So sort of probably the V&A Tate and , the Royal opera house. So probably the main ones with a dev team of a reasonable size. And then there's lots of other organizations that have a developer , uh , who is sort of , you know, manning the ship.

Ash:

How have you found that being that in house capacity? 'cos I guess there's always going to be more demand than you have time to be able to deliver against and everything's going to be high priority. And so how do you, I guess, how would you treat the organization as a client for your team?

Mike Harris:

Yeah. Well number one, I was super impressed when I came here because I think people outside the arts don't think that it's that fast maybe or maybe that digital savvy. And I was super impressed with the team that was here, the infrastructure that was in place and the speed with which we are doing things. So I think originally I thought, Oh my word, I'm gonna have to bring all these new, you know , startup new ways of doing things. But I was, I was really impressed that a lot of that was already set up here. Um, I think the RA is quite a unique organization because the RA lots of different chunks to it. So we've got the exhibitions , we've got schools, you've got learning, we've got the collections team. So I think one of the biggest, as you say challenges, but one of the most exciting things is that there is so many, so many parts and you're trying to fend off of things. So a lot of my job is saying no. Yep . And saying that's not possible or we need to do that. But at another stage , um , and it's great cause each of these teams are so passionate about their area but unfortunately can't do everything. I think it's helped him in the past year because we had a huge buy in from the whole organization to get this membership ticketing CRM system sorted. Uh, and there are lots of people put in place who are very good at managing those types of projects and that was really sort of the key thing to do. But in amongst that we also had, we had a big 250th anniversary and suddenly we wanted a new webpage, a new homepage and five weeks. You also have the summer exhibition every year and there's hard deadlines that that has to be fitted in. But we've got great product team and I think if you explain to people why things can't be done and uh, and work around that, then it can work out. Sometimes you're everyone's best friend and sometimes you're everybody's worst best friends. And have you seen in the sort of two and a bit years that you've been here, have you seen a shift in the sort of conversations you've been having with your colleagues around, are they sort of better quality conversations? Has there been a maturing arc to the organization's understanding of and engagement with digital and I guess the work that your team does and content and all those moving parts? Yeah, I think especially as you deliver pieces for different teams, again, there's lots of teams so sometimes you end up delivering a whole bunch of features for and they're on board and there's also, when you're delivering a project for them, you're very much engaged. But as these things happen, you sort of finish the main bits of the project. I think the great thing about having an in house team is you can iterate and improve on that. Take an example of that is a collections work that we put online two years that when I've just as I arrived, so I can't claim any credit for it. And I think the team we used to having almost daily contact with our team to try and get it launched, but then once it had launched to a point of working digital and agile is that on day one you don't really know if it's actually going to work. And the benefit of having the in house team is that you can iterate and improve on that. So we have a backlog and we sort of prioritize a bit of work with them over the air and fit it in when we sort of don't have other work.

Ash:

And have you found that people, I guess what's the comfort level with that idea of things not being completely 110% perfect when it launches and sort of embracing that as an opportunity rather than seeing it as Ooh, let things go out and they won't be finished again.

Mike Harris:

Again, different teams at different, there are, you know , sometimes in the arts world a lot of things are planned years in advance and people are used to a very finished project. I think the exhibitions team, when they launch an exhibition, it has to work from day one. You can't open an exhibition and decide that the paintings are in the wrong order and then shuffle them around the next day. So , uh, they've been a brilliant team. We'd done an in house project with them around managing the exhibitions. And I think definitely we've tried to manage the language and what's the expectations at different levels of what finished is because yeah, as you say, digital is definitely an iterative process and that team doesn't work in the same way. But it's also been really interesting to see how they do operate and try and fit in around that. So yeah. So I think some , some conversations have improved, but sometimes you've got a key person working on that team and they move on and suddenly has to start all over again.

Ash:

Yeah. And you know, different generations understand digital differently. I think that's something that I've seen is often you see an organization doing really great digital stuff in whatever way that might manifest itself. And actually you find out that's the work of one individual, which isn't a super sustainable way to work. It sounds like the RA has got sort of structures and process around people.

Mike Harris:

Any organization I've been to, there's always, sometimes there's a driver as a key person. Um , and sometimes when they move things are different. That is true. We are a bigger team of the RAs. I think it is less, well less dependent on individual people. So there's definitely more structure and process in place. But we're struggling like everybody with money. So some of the team we , that my tech team is now smaller than when I started. So again, people leaving has a bigger impact because it's not as wide, but you can't necessarily justify digital people are quite expensive for head count . So it's quite hard to sort of justify having all those people there just that you might have some continuing to see in a few years time and sometimes you're a victim. Very success. We sort of had the Tim cart , but we've delivered whole bunch of really, really good features and products. So sometimes people think, Oh, they're doing a great job with less. But uh , no it's been brilliant. I've got to get some really good people in . Um , generally we seem to be pretty well set up here, but we are the big rural organization and we do have bigger budgets. So I know it's easier and some places it is going to be the guy sat behind me , sat in the corner fixing everything until they burn out the case. I mean, I don't know how much you've managed to retain your outsider's perspective, but from, from someone who, it's not like from day one you've been in the, in the art world or in the cultural sector as a, as a worker. What, how, I guess, how was working in the sector differed from what you expected specifically in terms of, in terms of digital, you mentioned earlier about the pace of delivery and the piece of expectations. It's really when you're not ever part of a world, you sort of have this weird stereotype. So I'm sure people have stereotypes of banking when I was there and when I talk to people to hear yourself , you realize they don't necessarily understand what goes on and vice versa. I think lots of people think arts organizations aren't very efficient or business orientated. And I've been super impressed that there are parts of the RA which are very much about the art and that side of it, but there is also has to be a commercial side to it. There has to be money coming in, has to be, we have to sell tickets and we have to get memberships in and we don't want to make it a beautiful experience online as well as the next mission. So I think some of the sort of commercial corporate or digital speed has been a lot better than I thought. And yeah, often stereotypes are sometimes valid but often wrong, completely wrong. And I know people that work in FinTech and the perception is from the culture of sector that Oh, if you've got loads more money then everything's much easier. Surely everything's much easier. But I guess it's a different set of problems, problems. And just because there's lots of money around. Yeah , it's , yeah , it's tough. And then maybe you had to pay more salaries because people aren't doing you for the passion things . So and yeah, and it's very much all about the money. It's quite nice here that there are projects where we sold, doubled the amount of money we sold of our works online at the summer exhibition, which is great. But there's also projects we'd been working with substrata and a fantastic digital agency on a young artist summer show. And again last year there's no commercial side to that. But that is about empowering youngsters to get involved with art . So you have a really nice balance between these two projects. And I mean I guess it feels like you've, you've um , really grabbed the opportunity of working in the cultural sector with both hands and it feels like you've been to every exhibition, then you've gotten involved in all the meetups.

Ash:

What is your, now you're sort of, you're leaving the sector. What is your view on that , on the state of the cultural sector when it comes to digital do you think? Cause I think that there's a, there's a story that we tell ourselves that, Oh, it's lots of lots of people doing their best, but, but because resources are tight and there isn't perhaps buy in from leadership or the understanding that we're all sort of bodging it as we go along and we're not doing as well as we could do. What is your perspective of , of how the sector is, is sort of engaging with that challenge and that opportunity that digital in all its many forms presents?

Mike Harris:

Um , well first of all, I'd just like to say that everyone's been incredibly welcoming. Uh , the , at meetups conferences. Uh, and there's an amazing cultural Twitter family, a whole bunch of them I've never met or I've tweeted at it lots of times and they're not meetings or six months later. And I've been, it's been amazing how inclusive everyone's been about how friendly t hey'd been. U h, especially compared to other industries where t he sort of some snarky about this, that and the other. Everyone generally the whole c onference s ector seems super supportive and helpful, which has been great. So thank you everybody for that. U m, yeah, I mean I think whatever you do in the cultural world there is, there is, there is a tight budgets and some of these things require more money. So you end up having to get software or d ue processes, which you probably should be spending a lot more money on, but you can't, or having a bigger team so you have to get by with a smaller team who do fantastic work on a smaller budget. U h, there's definitely areas where that's not the case i n t he some fantastic things happening. U h, and it's interesting when you g o to the States and you see the organizations t here where there seems to be a bit more money o r they s eemed to have a slightly different way of a bit more commercial side to it and they are doing quite impressive things there. So I'm trying to work out what my point is. My point is probably, yeah, it's true. There is, there is, you know, it's something that I think it's quite hard to fix. I think there should be more, more off the shelf solutions I think I suppose wants to do everything so different and they want to build their own beautiful world and sometimes they do have stuff you need to buy, just something off the shelf and you can make it look a little bit different, but it doesn't need to be a completely, it doesn't need to be an artwork in itself. Yeah. So a lot of my, you know, and some of these things cost money to , to buy off the shelf, but the value statement, trying to build something is a lot better in the longterm .

Ash:

It feels like often cultural organizations are very good at coming up with their own incredibly Byzantine requirements that actually if they took a step back from, could be simplified down to something that they would share a lot of other similar sorts of organizations.

Mike Harris:

Yeah . Yeah . But then digital, it seems so easy to change and update and everything. And I think if you , I mean that's one of the messages people in digital is just explaining that these things are hard and people in digital systems want to build these things. We sort of, yeah, it's quite, it's quite fun to get stuck into them. Uh, but generally a sort of pretty big believer in not doing that. Then there's examples of this happening in the past. So is it the Met set up Tessitura effectively 20 years ago. So sometimes these in house projects can suddenly become an industry standard, but I think that's sort of the exception rather than the rule.

Ash:

And what's your, I mean I don't, I don't, I don't know what the situation is here at the RA . It feels like there's, there must be quite good buy in, in the sort of into the digital agenda into digital as a thing because you have a digital director, you have, you and your team, there's Louise Cohen and her content team. What is your sense of buy in from arts leaders who are often not necessarily digital natives? Do you feel that there is actual , people are seeing this, understanding it and in investing in it or that it's a bit more of a lip service thing?

Mike Harris:

Um , I mean I think the numbers speak for themselves and everyone, whoever they are in life is using their phones more as using computers more and people are buying tickets online. So the last two years we've doubled our wet sales in the summer , especially in the first year and then up 50% last year. But overall sales aren't that much bigger but more people obviously I'd like to say a brilliant, amazing website we've built. But I think it's also the case that more and more people are getting comfortable going online. Yeah . And again, we've launched new ticketing and membership routes online and we've had huge uptick there. And again, I think some of that is down to the design and what we've built. And then some of it is that more and more people are just, just, they don't want to speak to people. Unfortunately they want to go on and ticking some buttons. So maybe internally for us it's easier to work through that because the numbers speak for themselves. We were sort , still responsible for , uh, some like 25 or 30%, something about 25% of the revenue for the RA comes through digital channels. I think. Um, I kind of speak for all other organizations, but I mean the roll lots does seem to be the support there. And you know , people at the V&A are doing great things and do lots of talks and I think people sit there and listen and understand that this is very important. I don't necessarily know how it is that maybe the smaller organizations do, they just sit there and think maybe, Oh this is, this is the VA's and the Tate's and the, and the RAs and the Royal houses of the world can do this, but maybe we're not suited up. And you probably have a better idea on that.

Ash:

I think every, it's the elephant in the room, an ideal point together and name yet or you're very aware it's there. Um, and I guess, you know, you touched a bit on there that there's this, there is this shift in customer behavior specifically around the transactional stuff, you know, tickets, memberships, buying stuff online. Has there been, and I think that's, that's an easy conversation to have. You know, it's like you buy, you're trying to use a lie and you base it on my techniques . I lied to therefore we should sell our tickets online. What I feel like there may be isn't quite as obvious a answer to or solution for is putting the, putting the art into a digital space. Is that something that the RAs grappling with or is it, is digital sale seen as the sort of comms acquisition thing and then people come to the, the physical thing to experience the art?

Mike Harris:

Yeah , so we've, we did size , we're digitizing and putting our collection online . Um , which has been great. A lot of the RAs collection is literature and books. And the great thing about that is that we used to have people that would come and book slots in the library and come and get the book and look at it. And now it's online. We've got OCR technology that has basically transformed all the text into strips. I think that's fantastic. That's one way of quite practical out online in terms of exhibitions. I think everyone gets very excited about a VR experience or a augmented reality and things. And the few things that we've done haven't been particularly good. So just when I joined, we had the from life experience and we had a , I think it was Oculus rift headsets and not many people got engaged. And I don't know if that's, we marketed that wrong or it was the wrong thing, but I don't think, I think people want to come and see art in a beautiful big gallery. And I think replace replacing that completely online is quite hard to to , I think you can have more digital experiences. Again, most of the exhibitions here have been all work-based , but we have built via louvers video, our testing. It didn't work. It didn't, wasn't as popular as some of the other ones. So I just think that especially for the RA , it's got such beautiful galleries then we're always probably going to be physical first. Yeah , I think there is definitely options to have digital art spaces, but I haven't seen anything that's really stuck out as a really valid thing that makes money and obviously everything. I think everything on where people want to source have for free. So I don't know. I know this organization, when necessary, build this amazing experience that's completely for free. There's , you know, there's , uh , if it was a huge budget thing, you know, we put our S our collection online because it's valuable to the community, but making a big digital gallery, I'm not sure. And it feels like there's been effort , you know, you're touching on the [inaudible] stuff there. It's, it's, it's about trying to take the physical thing and mirror that online rather than engaging with digital as a a different, yeah. A different output channel. And actually you might need to reconfigure your curatorial thinking to deliver for that yeah. Space, which, which I haven't seen a huge amount of, maybe I'm not looking in the right places, but I guess maybe still art history people and curators are there . Their focus is still the physical. Yeah . So maybe it's the artists themselves, so maybe if we have more artists doing more digital things and there are definitely lots of digital artists out there, so yeah, I think maybe that's for them to drive it if the audience want that, but often you don't necessarily need an arts organization to do that. If an artist is digital, they can host it , put it online because it's relatively cheap and easy for them to do that. Do they need the RA to rubber stamp that this is an excellent digital experience? It's an interesting shift in power dynamics I guess because if artists can essentially self exhibit to everyone with them, isn't that connection then how does the RA sort of insert itself into that? Are artists or the audience relationship? Yeah. Interesting. I mean maybe if you get funding for it and it's a great experience, but we don't get a regular government funding. We have to, we have to make what we do money. In terms of, if you are having a word with yourself from two and a half years ago from you on your first day knowing, knowing what you know now, what would be the things that you would tell your, tell myself how yourself, you know, be aware of this, make sure you enjoy this, don't worry about this, worry about this, that, and the other. I kind of feel very lucky. I was just a weird experience, tiny up and there was just starting a project and I think the best thing about it has been working with some really amazing people that that's happened. So I felt that I've done my part to the project. But um, Nick has , is that digital director and Liz who's a , we nicknamed her the hammer, had a very driven, it threw him, sort of had buy in from everybody and we've had all the different members of the different teams. So that was just a really fantastic experience. So maybe I would just tell myself at the beginning not to, not to worry too much, although it was pretty obvious straight away that the people, the team were really, really good and knew what they were doing. There's not much I've, I just had a brilliant two years . I've , as you said before, I've gone into all the exhibitions. I like turning up early and wandering around the galleries when no one's around . It's been super interesting seeing things like when they always get moved in an hour painting the walls, isn't it ? Is it just a huge job in between every exhibition sending the walls are painted a completely different color. We've had a new revenue of the building here, which has been fantastic. So it depends . I think there's an awful lot there. I think I've said no enough times. Maybe I sometimes, I think one of the challenges of the job in the two years has been that the risk , so many things we have from eight or nine projects, so it comes from the main website through to the collections online summer exhibition or the ticketing membership flow. We have a project for Arrington exhibitions , then we get roped or sorry, not ready till we get involved with projects like a digital, you know, contribution machine. Uh , we have screens in the, I wouldn't , I would say so care away from digital screens in the lobby. The most painful. I have cold sweats now whenever I go to a , an organization and I see a digital screen in the lobby, I think they're brilliant. I have customers like it and it's just a [inaudible] that was, that was the one I should just do it. I don't think I tried to stay clear of it as much as possible. So maybe I should say everything is brilliant. Just don't ever get involved with digital screens.

Ash:

So, so, so now your, you're leaving the cultural sector , you're going to work for another startup. Yes. Who do children's books personalized your personalized children's books and you , you've always struck me as someone who is restless in a good way. You're interested in lots of things. You know, you've just said you're going to go, if you're going to go and spend some time now becoming a qualified yoga instructor before you start your next job, you've worked in banking, you've retrained as a, as a developer. Can you see yourself returning to the culture, cultural world in a, in a professional capacity or who have you? You, you did it for two years. You enjoyed it and you're probably never gonna .

Mike Harris:

No, definitely. No, I would, I would. It's a strange one because I've talked to all my friends and they've said, why are you leaving yours ? You're having a fantastic time. I think some of it is, I've had a fantastic time because I thought it was going to be a two, three, four year experience. So I've made the absolute most of it. And there's little things, so I've never committed this far before. And I'm going to start up this like walking distance from my house, which matters. You have to care about your job, but walking distance , um, I'm probably restless now at think at different stages in your career, you can do different things. I had a five, eight very settled career for bet, which wasn't maybe that inspirational, but it was super important at that time in my life. So you don't always have to be climbing the ladder or doing these things and sometimes just being in one place for a bit is great, but I think I did that for a bit and this is my time where I'm, there's lots of opportunities in the digital world. I always get worried that it's like the banking world that will collapse in on itself. So I've got this opportunity now to try things when the market's quite good and there were opportunities. What are some of the parts and organizations? I vaguely talk to them potentially. I could've ended up home , but it felt like it was going to be too similar. I wanted to learn some new things and I think at different times of my life this would have been amazing job for five years and I have a feeling that I might catch on the way . Sorry on the way down. Is that the wrong phrase? But I think maybe in 15 years time, I think this is just, it's been such a brilliant place to be, that if I've done other things and have had some other challenges to come back into the outset from something that I know at a different time in life and have a really wonderful career for another 10 years would be an option. And I hip hop listen to this in the future in 10 years time. And that actually happened . So insightful. But let's see.

Ash:

And I guess my , my, my last question is, the good thing about digital is you can reach everyone in the world all the time with an internet connection. But I think that certainly talking with other people who work in digital roles there, that can be a problem that, that always on, you know, there could be someone trying to buy tickets in America. It's two o'clock in the morning here and how you, you seem to be someone who is quite good at retaining a work life balance. You receive, you may not be the case, but you always seem pretty chilled out. You do swimming, you do your running, you're the yoga. Yeah. What would be your advice for other digital people working in the cultural sector about knowing when, when and how and where to draw that line?

Mike Harris:

It's always tough and some of it's a privileged because I seem to have the right skill set and maybe I'm a white man in tech, so I sort of don't, I feel that I can, I don't worry too much about my position in the world. So I think that's one thing that I'm conscious of that other people may not have if you don't feel comfortable with where you are in your career or where you're at, which I think is for the whole industry to make sure that you're comfortable with. Uh, I think some of that comes from me. I've also had an excellent boss who has trusted me and has been quite forgiving where things have broken. We'd have had the website break at night, but some of it's setting expectations in advance and saying we have two smaller team and we're not paid enough money. So this is what we can expect in terms of fixing things. So we say if it breaks overnight , we just, we don't sell enough that it's worse than one being on cool . So we absolutely don't worry about it. But when we get up in the morning, if they're suddenly broken, then I'll get up and sort that out. But there is that sort of understanding with the organization and maybe I've just been very lucky. They've had very supportive team and, and a boss. Uh , we did have an issue the other weekends , so we have sat down and you try and sort these issues out. But there is definitely this balance between we're over stretched and doing lots of things and how to have a good life balance , um , firmly the belief if you rested and you do all these other things, you'd do a much better job in the time your hours are at work. Uh, so I think there's always, this thought comes to you was here about companies talking about wellness and balance, but there still needs to be a certain amount of work done. But yeah, I've, I've been trusted to work. I felt I've done a good job. So I go home and do my, to my touching my toes.

Andy:

So that was Mike Harris. Nice guy, very smart guy.

Ash:

Indeed. He's a really nice guy. In between leaving the Royal Academy and going to work at Wonderbly, which is the startup he's now at, he went to Bali to train as a yoga instructor.

Andy:

We all respect for, for Mike can learn something that quickly you can focus your mind and say, right, I'm going to learn yoga or I'm going to learn how to code. And then you , and allow your career to develop into a really important role at the RA from working in banking is just incredible.

Ash:

And I think that actually in an interview I've already recorded, but that will be featuring in a future episode. I talked with Katie Moffitt , who's head of digital at the audience agency about the digital mindset and what that means. And I think it would depend somewhat on on the role as to what that actually meant. But the thing, the element that felt overriding the important was that idea of curiosity, that willingness to learn new things, be that openness because I think that's what digital demands and rewards as you said, Mike was a Bancaire and then retrained and I think, you know at substrate we have a number of people who have come from other career paths or who are self taught and I think increasingly you see that across the full spectrum of of digital roles that it does really reward enthusiasm and curiosity.

Andy:

Yeah, absolutely. We kind of always say when we take people onto our team, but but digital careers in , in, in the sector is kind of attitude over aptitude. Obviously you need to know , know what you're doing, but you need to approach it in a way that yeah, you're not going to get boxed into a specific role. It's not a career that you had to train five years to get into. It's something that's ever shifting and your mind needs to be open to that. Yeah ,

Ash:

Embracing the chaos. And I think there are a couple of things that that might touch on that I think are really interesting and an important, I think, you know , he touched on the , the power of at somewhere like the RA, the power of the physical building, of the physical space. And I know that lots of people might challenge that point, but I think in relation to digital, I think that's where digital can sometimes fall down. Digital experiences can sometimes fall down is when you're trying to create a facsimile or create a copy of the physical experience. I think that's often historically where a lot of money and attention has been spent in somehow trying to digitize exhibitions or digitize performance. And that feels a little bit like a wasted opportunity because digital is fundamentally a different experience. And it's probably about reworking those things so they work in a digital context rather than just trying to create, for example, a digital gallery that you can digitally walk around. There was an example recently that one of our designers shared with us of a completely digital gallery, which you could walk around and look at uh , artworks and find out more about the artworks on the, on the wall. And, and I sort of actively disliked that in quite an intense way. So it's Olympia gallery.org was the experience with discussing because it felt like, well number one, it felt like their recreation of a mid nineties first person shooter computer game, it felt a little bit like returned to Castle Wolfenstein. And secondly, it felt like it really did a disservice to the artworks that it was exhibiting because as you walked around, they were all in really low resolution things on the walls and yes, you could click on them to get a high resolution version. But that to me felt like a sort of real encapsulation of getting digital wrong. You know, I'm sure that in rationalizing that project people would have said, you know, this is going to be brilliant. We're completely removing the geographic barriers to attending this gallery. We are, you know , creating something that is far more accessible to everyone wherever they are. But I don't think it came anywhere close to delivering a gallery experience in inverted commas, whatever that is. And just felt like a real wasted opportunity. I think if someone had never been to an art gallery and that was their first experience of visual arts stuff, I'm not sure that experience would lead to people wanting to do that sort of thing again or ever go to a gallery. I'm not sure it broke down any barriers. I'm not sure actually did anything

Andy:

positive. You are sure you're not not sure. I didn't like it. Yeah , that's clear. I think that is, that is the danger with I guess digital projects where that can be born out of someone's idea and there's some funding for it and they go for it and it's not well considered and it's not well executed. And I think RA, you were clearly trying to now much left the RA , dig up a little bit of a on how they operate, but it's clear that they're doing it well. They've, they've built a digital team and they operate a digital team in a , in a very well considered way. But I think it's very easy to get that wrong and , and , and not approach it in that in the best way and say, Oh, we've got a specific problem. We want a specific project to, to solve that. Or a specific person to solve that. And then you start off with this kind of disjointed approach. But you have to , if you're doing it well and suddenly you have to invest in it and build the right team and , and clearly RA can , can do that. But I think, yeah, it's hard for those who haven't quite got the budgets and infrastructure because they might get more easily distracted by the, we're a gallery, let's make our gallery accessible online. We're rebuilding it, recreating it, which at one point might have sounded like a great idea, but clearly wasn't for me, for me. But we'd be interested to hear if some people think differently.

Ash:

Absolutely. And I'm sure for some people that it was interesting and exciting and it , you know, maybe I'm not the target audience. I don't know, but it just, it felt like a real manifestation of people getting the wrong end of the stick when it comes to how do we do this thing digitally? And that felt like quite a , okay, well we'll make, we'll make the gallery digitally.

Andy:

But back to Mike , I think , uh , touched on this briefly, but what I really love about working in digital is the kind of, I guess the flexibility it offers people cause he's hopped around and doing lots of different things. Clearly having a great time and where else, where else did you get that sort of flexibility to move around sectors, spaces, roles.

Ash:

Yeah, it is. I think it is tremendously exciting. I think it can feel slightly overwhelming and terrifying at times, but that, you know, that all encompassing, constantly shifting. Nature is always why we work doing this. Yeah . The opportunity is huge, right? Because it's, it's not, it's not, no one's gonna give you a book. No one's going to give you a textbook and say, read this taste book, pass this exam, pass this exam, you know, do this one year of additional training and then we'll give you a digital qualification and then this is your career path. It feels like in some sectors in the cultural world, in some areas there is a growing formalization of digital career paths, which I don't think is a bad thing. You know, I can point to numerous examples of really talented people who have left the sector because there wasn't that career path because there weren't those training opportunities because there weren't those development opportunities. It feels like digital, particularly in this sector , uh, is quite reliant on the professionals in those roles being very self motivated. You know, and we've already touched on that being a digital professional sort of demands that you are pretty and self-motivated anyway, but the lack of formalized career paths and professional development opportunities can take its toll. I think, you know, if you're constantly having to be the one seeking out training opportunities and understanding how you should be moving your career forwards, I think that is an arduous task. Yeah .

Andy:

And for most organizations that we work with at that level, it's , it's, it's, it's a challenge to , or it has been a challenge and how best to fold those people into organization and the structure. Some people set up digital teams, some try and straddle it across all teams. I mean that is been an interesting thing to watch unfold and see people doing it differently because you do want those, those people who come in and want to shake things up and have those kind of curious people who are asking the right questions and digging into the right areas. How do you, how do you expose them to the organization and give them the freedom and flexibility to do the right things on behalf of the organization.

Ash:

Yeah. Without burning them out. Yeah. That's the challenge. Right. And that's that. Again, that's something that I'll come onto in a, in a future interview, but the idea of how leadership in the sector has engaged with digital as a sort of opportunity threat I think is really, really patchy. Um, and I think there are examples of really great leadership and I think there are examples of really ineffective leadership in this area. Those examples, Ash ? Yeah , I don't think we were super specific, but I think that it , you know, it's, and again, we've made this point a few times now, but I think that digital effectiveness ultimately yes, of course there are resource implications around that. If you have more money and time and space to try things out and to test ideas, then you're probably going to be able to arrive at the more impactful, successful solutions. However, I think organizations big and small who display a sort of understanding of how best to engage with digital as a thing and how best to support their digital teams or person and how they go about deciding what they will and won't invest in or do. I don't think there's necessarily a hard and fast rule that those organizations all have the most money or those organizations are working in a particular country or art form. Then it comes back again to individuals. It comes back to leadership about who's doing digital best. Anyway, as I say, we will be discussing all that and more in a future episode, potentially the next one or potentially episode number three where I sit down and talk with Katie Moffatt, who's head of digital at the audience agency. Um, we also have conversations coming up with Robin Christopherson who is head of digital inclusion at ability net. We have conversations coming up with Louise Cohen who is head of digital content and channels at the Royal Academy of arts. I have a conversation coming up with Kati price, who is head of digital at the V&A, so some really interesting perspectives that I hope to be able to share with you soon. As I've said before, if you want to ask us anything or tell us why we're wrong, we are on Twitter at digital. Underscore works underscore, don't forget the last underscore, and at the moment we're hoping planning to put out a new episode once a fortnight that will be slightly dependent on whether or not I can carve out the time to edit them. But at the moment, once a fortnight feels useful and achievable. So until next time, thank you.