Looking back at my future career by Neil Pleasants

Tell us about yourself?

Hi, I’m Neil and my current role is Head of Product at Currys. I’ve been in the digital space for 20 years. The first ten years were in broadcast media and the last ten have been largely in retail, especially online groceries. Outside of work I play the bass guitar (badly) and the drums and I have a wedding photography business (www.muluphotography.com) to give me a distraction from my day to day work.

What led you to a career in tech?

I would love to say that I had a well thought out career path, but the truth is I fell into the digital space by pure accident, or should I say by luck now that I reflect on things. I was a TV/Radio producer for the BBC when I was asked to join the Interactive TV team. I didn’t have a clue what that entailed at the time, but I love gadgets and innovation so I jumped at the chance when offered the position. I think that's a good life lesson, give something a go, if it's not for you, then at least you tried it. If it works out you have discovered something new and a potentially exciting new avenue for your career to go down. There is nothing wrong with trying several routes to find the one that fits you, no matter what stage your career is at. Looking back, the decision to join digital was one of my better judgements and I am very grateful to those who believed in me enough to give me a break along the way. I have had the opportunity to be a part of some great products. Most of all though, I have met some amazing people, been in some great teams and made some good friends along the way.

What does a typical day look like for you?

As a Head of Product, you’re in demand and pulled in many directions. I work in a large matrix organisation, so my day is generally unpredictable and chaotic. What my diary looks like and what I end up doing each day are two wildly different things, so I have to be very flexible and comfortable with ambiguity. I quite like the lack of structure though, as I get my energy from bouncing from one thing to another quite quickly and I need to think on my feet a lot. On a typical day, I could be working on strategy directions, appearing in front of a senior leadership panel to recommend a direction or giving product updates through to resolving technical issues that have stopped the website trading. Then there are the many discussions around product reviews, project plans, reports and budgets, as well as attending workshops and trying to juggle the hundreds of email/messages that come my way on multiple platforms like Slack, Teams and Outlook. Knowing when to stop is key otherwise it's too easy to get chained to the desk. I am still trying to get better at switching off. I also manage a large team and all teams need time and support in their personal and professional lives. There's a lot to juggle and never enough hours in the day, but with each day comes new opportunities to improve the services we offer.

Advice to your younger self?

I could write a book on advice to my younger self, but it would be a rather futile conversation given how headstrong I was back then. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have listened, even to myself. That's not always a bad thing, sometimes you have to discover things for yourself in order to progress. That said, I would focus my advice on two key points. The first would have to be that it's ok to get things wrong. Being wrong is not a character flaw, it's human. You can't know everything so stop trying and learn to let some things go. You will face lots of these crossroads in a digital career but ask yourself what's worth dying in a ditch for and what, in the grand scheme of things, is more important to focus on. The second piece of advice would be to learn quickly what you are good and not so good at, your peaks and troughs, so to speak. Then decide whether you are going to fill your troughs or keep bettering your peaks. The younger me didn't realise it was OK not to be good at everything and it's easy to lose focus trying. I came to realise that I was going to concentrate on my peaks and fill my troughs with people in the team who can do those things way better than I can, as that's their peak. That leads to teams with different strengths within it, which in turn becomes more collaborative and empowered, so it has to be a good thing.

If you could invite anyone to join the Black Valley community, who and why?

It would have to be someone who can give back from what they have achieved, is a natural mentor and promotes diversity and inclusion, so that would have to be Jim Cruickshank, VP of Product at Pandora and also Martin Eriksson, Founder of Mind The Product. May as well throw in Marty Cagan, Founder of SVPG for good measure also. 


Final thoughts?...

There’s a couple of great quotes I try to remind myself of and I thought I would pass them on.

The first one is ‘learn to sit back and observe, not everything needs a reaction’ and the second is ‘choose people who choose you’. The latter, I am sure will resonate. You can’t and won’t please all the people all the time and aligning with people who believe in you is key.

Neil Pleasants

Head of Product, Currys

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