Mike Ellis

Mike runs Thirty8 Digital, which works with museums and other not for profits to help them do nice things with the web. Before he ran away to live by the sea in North Cornwall, he founded a bunch of digital initiatives including BathCamp, The Big M, Bath Digital Festival and Geek Dads Breakfast. He's in the throws of writing his second book having caught the bug with his first one. He has two small boys and a lovely wife, and frankly prefers hanging out with them to working. Just don't tell his clients.

You can find Mike on Twitter @m1ke_ellis.

Published Thoughts

Clearing your desk, clearing your mind

A while back, maybe 15 years or so, I was on the brink of leaving my job at Waterstone's Online when my boss called me into his office. I'd accepted an amazing (and it turns out life-changing) new role at The Science Museum. At the time I was excited about the new job but also quite sad at leaving my old one. It'd been my first grown-up role: in London, in an office, working with managers and reports and all that stuff for the first time. But also it'd been an astonishing time - when I started it was pre-Amazon, pre-boom - the web team was me and one other. When I left it was 80 or so. This was big and exciting - and I loved it.

I expressed this to my boss, and he said something that I still remember.

He told me that leaving a job was a necessary thing to do every so often, however much you love it. He talked about the build-up of stuff, the endless entropy that comes with work - how those projects you never quite completed, the emails you never sent, the ideas that never came to fruition - gather around you like dust: a continuous aggregation of matter - physical, mental, imagined, actual.

Leaving a job, he said, lets you literally and metaphorically clear your desk, an absolutely vital part of moving through your working life.

This has remained with me to this day - and not just when moving jobs. When I get bogged down I find it helps to think about where stuff has built up - not just the inbox but also all those places we put stuff to read later: Evernote, Trello, text files, Dropbox, Kindle, folders on your Mac desktop, piles of books around the house, articles pinned to walls, newspaper clippings. When you've found them, clean them, as if you're leaving that job forever. Empty your physical and mental drawers - put a line under it all, and move on.

Just removing stuff, ruthlessly, with no remorse, no looking back, no what-if's can sometimes be the best way to clear one's life and mind.

What it does, not what it is

The importance of the new iPhone 6s isn't that it can shoot 4k video. It's that people will make beautiful, emotive, touching films using it.

The importance of a website isn't the underlying framework, coding language or hosting, or whether you've used PHP, .Net or node.js. It's that people can see and engage with the importance of the images and words.

The importance of a stereo system isn't the fidelity of the speakers. It's the emotion that you feel when you listen to something astonishing.

A video camera from 10 years ago, a website that is simple, flat HTML, the tinny sound from a Bakelite record player - these can all do the job of their "better" counterparts. Watch a silent Harold Lloyd film, read a piece of incredible prose, listen to Beethoven on a crappy cassette and you'll understand pretty quickly that you don't need the latest and greatest thing to be deeply touched by what you see, read or hear.

Rejecting the new isn't the answer, of course. But focussing on what it is rather than what it does - that's the danger of the high-glamour, shiny, fast paced market we face every day.

Often, the new is a distraction - learning how to use a new phone, moving your website into the latest language, setting up your new stereo. Maybe that time and money would be better used in other ways, making wonderful things out of the tools you've already got...

The art of coasting

Your career: it’s about growth, development, building for the future. You’re on a trajectory which started when you left school with a couple of A-levels. You maybe went on to college. Your parents smiled as they could see that this was a career with legs, something going somewhere.

Your bosses’ job comes up. You go for it – it’s written in your path. You get more money, more responsibility, more budget.

A couple of years down the line and you’re head of department. Then five years later, VP. Then…who knows…

This kind of career is drilled into us. On the one hand, our parents’ generation has a lot to do with this – as lifelong career holders, that’s how it went for them, and they reflect that back at us.

But there’s also our environment: our peers, friends, government – and they emit a constant, never-ending background hum that growth is a good thing. If you’re not earning more this year than last, if your job isn’t bigger, more responsible, more important – well, then you’re failing.

To be seen to coast, just to relax into what you know and like? No, my boy! Get up that ladder. Show us your ambition!

It’s OK, strangely, for us to bust our balls for 20 years, sell a business and then stop working. Society forgives us for that. We worked so hard to get there after all. But choosing a path which enables you to coast, to find a balance, to just stay at the same level? Slacker.

We’re apparently keen on work-life balance, but try refusing that next promotion because you choose the extra hour a day at home with your kids over the increase in salary? Weird looks all round – and an unsettling feeling that you’ll be on The List when the redundancies come round, earmarked as the slopey-shouldered one.

We all accept it because everyone says it is A Good Thing, but growth is fundamentally broken. Sure, we maybe earned more this year than last, but then the bills, fuel, holidays, house prices and everything else have risen too. Net result? Not much, as far as I can tell.

As my company enters its fifth year of trading I feel this pressure to grow perhaps even more keenly than those who are employed by someone else. Almost everything is urging us to scale up – and I’m fascinated by this because it’s absolutely not something we are aiming for; it’s just the natural offshoot of an environment in which growth is expected. Almost by default (actually I think because we do a good job and are now known because of it) we have bigger clients, bigger budgets and better exposure than ever before. It’s obvious in abstract that bigger work follows that which went before – but also really interesting to watch it actually happening, month on month and year on year.

Round about now there are people in my position who would probably take on staff. But…I like the balance. I don’t want a £5k a month staff cost stressing me out. I have no desire whatsoever to work evenings and weekends. I want to hang out with my wonderful kids before they reach an age when they’re off all the time doing their own thing. I want to go surfing, write music, run, chill out with a cider, look at the sea.

This is not to say (dear clients!) that we don’t bust a ball when we are working. We produce great stuff, and we make our clients happy – and this is absolutely crucial to us.

But do we want to get bigger? No - but what is becoming clear to me is that it requires active effort to maintain – to coast – rather than grow.

I've found that these three things help:

1) Don’t be afraid to say no: it is strangely empowering. My hot tip is to find a friend with a similar mindset and share your “I said no!” stories with each other. It helps, and will bolster your confidence hugely.

2) Be picky with who or what you work with. See 1) but also don’t be afraid to turn down or push back about things you’re not comfortable doing. This doesn't always work - back at the beginning of Thirty8 Digital, we took on whoever and whatever we could - but it's a delight now to be able to pick and choose.

3) Remember why you’re here. This is the most important thing of all. If this means meditation or mindfulness, great. If that's not your bag, that's fine too. But just step away, regularly - and consider what you're doing and why.

It's all too easy to get caught up in the process of doing and lose sight of your horizon. Look at your kids, your partner, the things you find beauty in. Choose time with them over this strange thing we call "growth".

Choose to coast, and be proud of your choice.

Finding flow in a different set of keys

Many people I know, myself included, have their lives dominated by splintered, fractured attention. Half way through an email, another one arrives. A popup, a sound, a line of text in the notification bar. An SMS. The doorbell. A phonecall. Another email.

Don’t forget Berners-Lee. That swine basically invented distraction. The wonder that is the hyperlink is also the most divisive, attention-splitting rabbit hole digger there is. What started as a simple page of text is now a gateway into the warren of the web. Those little underlined moments, they suck you in. 

I’ll come back to that in a minute. Let’s talk about pianos instead.

The piano as we know it was invented in the late 1600’s or early 1700’s. By then, things like dulcimers, harpischords and clavichords had been on the scene for a while. The clavichord was expressive but too quiet; the harpsichord loud but without any dynamic range. The piano needed to do something special which these previous instruments didn’t, and innovation took a while to catch up. 

In a piano, each note is hit by a hammer (as we all remember from school this makes it a percussion instrument rather than a stringed one), and this hammer can’t stay on the string after it hits it. If it did, the note would damp - stop - immediately.

Around about 1700 or thereabouts a man called Cristofori developed the innovation that was needed - the action of the piano - a mechanism which meant that the hammer could hit the string and then rapidly retreat, leaving the note to play. 

The resulting instrument was much louder than the clavichord, but gave the player the means to alter the dynamics extremely finely. The "soft-loud" nature of the resulting dynamic range echoes in the name, pianoforte, which later became shortened to "piano". 

The modern day piano has evolved a fair bit, but the essential mechanism is the same. A key is pressed and (almost) simultaneously a damper is lifted from the string as a hammer strikes the individual note. The hammer leaves the string immediately - but while the key is kept pressed down, the damper stays off the string and the note sustains. Once the key is released, the damper comes back onto the string and the note is stopped. 

As well as the action there are typically two pedals on most pianos as well. On an upright piano, the soft, left pedal brings the whole action closer to the strings so that the hammers don’t hit quite so hard. On a grand piano - where there is typically more than one string per note, this pedal moves the whole action so that less strings are hit by an individual hammer. The effect is similar in both - a quieter, mellower sound. The right hand pedal (the “loud” or “sustain” pedal) lifts all the dampers from the strings and allows them to ring free, even when the keys are lifted.

This subtle but incredible brilliance - the technical interplay between the strings, dampers, hammers, pedals and keys - is what lies at the heart of the extraordinary dynamic range that can be found in this instrument. When you next see a piano, open up the front (maybe ask its owner first..), play a bit, and watch how everything meshes together - sometimes up to 12,000 moving parts in a single piano.

I’m lucky enough to own three pianos; my wife is lucky enough that I don’t keep them all in one place. Each one has a distinct personality: my gran’s old brown upright is out of tune but wonderfully characterful, and forms the backdrop to recent recordings we’re making in our band. The second one is a Fleschner, a big, funereal number - dark black wood, scratched to hell, but a wonderful, forceful, expressive piano. The final one - my be-all-and-end-all piano - is a Broadwood, a beautifully resonant brown baby grand which was handed down to me twenty something years ago by my grandfather. She’s suffering, the Broadwood - she only just moved here as we finally find ourselves in a house big enough for her to fit. As a consequence she needs a good tuning, and possibly some other minor tweaks, but she’s a stunning, wonderful thing. 

I’m not as good as I once was, but I never stopped playing - not once since I started age 5. I’m going to take my Grade VIII again before the end of the year, more than twenty years after I did it the first time. There are 160 bloody scales, not to mention impossibly hard finger-twisting pieces, sight reading, aural tests and the rest. This shit is hard work - mentally and physically. 

But then often I like to just sit down and improvise, hold down the sustain pedal and hear notes echoing magically around the body of this incredible instrument for what seems like minutes on end. And in the middle of a seemingly impossible series of note changes it becomes very clear that this isn’t always a conscious connection. My fingers - like a programmers, or a typists - are moving on their own, perhaps driven by mechanical memory rather than anything else, or maybe it’s just instinct, or plain luck.

This (I realise now after years of doing it and not knowing) is my flow activity - the thing I lose myself in, sometimes for hours on end. That unfeasibly complicated mechanism, the moving parts, the body of this enormous great thing which I seem to be controlling somehow - this is my antidote to the inbox of doom, the client email, the Twitter mention, the late project. It is constant, a refuge, a place I can go where the noise - the mental noise - is kept to a minimum.