Podcast Episode #1

Jack Webster
User Experience Researcher at Spotify

Ryan Blakeley, Interviewer

Listen on Spotify

Episode #1 Transcript:

Pallas Catenella: Hello and welcome to the working PhDs podcast.

This episode was recorded while our guest, Dr. Jack Webster, was working at Spotify. He is now a Senior User Researcher at Miro.

Ryan Blakeley: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Working PhDs podcast. My name is Ryan Blakeley and I’m a PhD Musicology student at the Eastman School of Music where I study music streaming. And so I’m very excited today to introduce our guest, Dr. Jack Webster. Jack completed a PhD in Web Science at the University of South Hampton in 2019 with a thesis on the relationship between music streaming and musical taste.

He’s worked as a data analyst for the major record label, Universal and as an insight analyst for the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, or IFPI. Now, Jack is a user researcher at Spotify, one of the world’s biggest and most innovative music streaming platforms. So welcome Jack.

Dr. Jack Webster: Hey, thanks for having me.

RB: It’s great to have you on, I’m really excited about our conversation today. You’ve gone from researching music streaming services to working at one.

JW: Yeah. I mean, it’s been quite a fortunate transition that I’ve managed to build on an interest in music that I’ve had for a long time, because I studied music for my bachelor’s degree, and playing guitar and jazz fusion bands with my friends. And then I became more academic about studying music, kind of got into the musicology side of that, which has inspired me then to go into, to do a master’s degree and PhD, ultimately, that kind of interest in eventually evolved into an interest in digitalization and datafication around music.

RB: That’s actually kind of where I wanted to go next, with his PhD in Web Science that you did. From what I can tell it, program seems like it’s really unique and interdisciplinary in a lot of ways.

JW: It is quite unique. This thing called web science was basically an endeavor to think about how to study the web and digital technologies from a kind of socio-technical perspective. So my PhD was looking at social consequences of streaming, and thinking particularly in relation to the role that music tastes plays in the culture reproduction of class inequalities. And I was making a contribution to all of that by doing my own kind of qualitative study.

Half of my collection was focused on interviewing key informants working in streaming platforms and in the music industry to understand more about what platforms are and how they try to influence what we consume and what we encounter. And then the other half of the data collection was focused on everyday users of music streaming services, and in particular, trying to assemble people from different class backgrounds to understand how class shapes how these people interact with these platforms.

RB: Were there any other like methodological skills that now in your professional life you’re thinking, “Oh, maybe it would have been nice if I had an opportunity to learn some of those skills”?

JW: Yeah. That’s a good question. So learning more statistics would be valuable, but in particular learning about experimental design would be incredibly valuable. If I could go back and say, I’ll learn this. Because lots of organizations, particularly digital platforms, and those kinds of things rely heavily on experiments to test ideas and new product changes. And whilst doing experiments is very much the domain of data scientists, understanding the principles of experimental design and how to interpret results would be incredibly valuable.

From the kind of qualitative methods side, it’s kind of hard to advise on that one, because, maybe this is also true of quantitative methods, but so much of it comes through experience and practice. Qualitative methods are quite hard to master because there’s no instructions to it. It’s like a feel for the game and how it is meant to be done and what to listen for. I’m glad that I did have the experience that I got from doing a PhD, but there was still so much more to learn through doing, and there’s just not enough time to do it all as a grad student. It’s so much more about trying it out.

RB: Your moved from academia into the music industry, was this something premeditated? Had you planned that this was a potential route that your career could take you? Or was that just a by-product of the work that you had done and the connections you made?

JW: I applied for academic jobs when I finished my PhD, a few post-doc positions in the UK, and I was unsuccessful. Finishing the PhD and sort of taking a step back from academia and going through these application processes that weren’t really going anywhere, it gives you a different perspective on academia. You’re like this isn’t the be all and end all. There’s other things out there as well. Let’s explore my options. And it was more the case that like, I just couldn’t get an academic job, but because of my background and my connections, I could get an industry job. And so economic necessity kicked in and I was like, okay, I need a job. I can’t wait indefinitely for the right post-doc thing to come around because that’s just not sustainable. So let’s take this job that I’m a good fit for. And I did.

And that just kind of like sets you on a different path and you get a bit further away from academia, from this world that’s consumed you for a long time, and you see it differently. You see what it looks like on the other side, as it were, kind of changes your perspective a little bit. And then I just ended up staying within the industry context and just developing from there.

RB: Right. And I think that leads us very nicely into your current job as a user researcher for Spotify. I was wondering if in general terms, you could just describe a little bit about what that job entails.

JW: Yeah. User research can mean lots of different things and it can come in many different forms depending on what company you’re working at and where in a particular company you are, products you’re working in relation to. But broadly speaking it’s about doing research, it could be qualitative, it could also be quantitative, trying to understand the user’s perspective on the product that you’re trying to build. So understanding how people use Spotify, what they think about it, perceptions of things, attitudes about particular features or products, and trying to understand why they use it in particular ways and how they use it in particular ways. So it’s all about understanding the users perspective, broadly speaking.

RB: One thing that comes out of that is what your typical work week might look like. Generally speaking the way your time is broken up in terms of research and all those aspects.

JW: It’s quite hard to generalize about that because at least Spotify’s case, but I imagine it’s the same for the large organizations, you have a lot of autonomy. Much of my time is figuring out what’s the right thing to do. And sometimes my time is spent doing more coordination activities and trying to get projects off the ground. Or maybe it’s like a collaboration with another set of researchers and trying to define what the project should be about, which requires a lot of talking with product managers and other people. So it’s a lot of coordination and project management. All of this stuff that’s not so much about the research, but is essential to getting ready to do the research. So depending on where I am in a project, that could be a lot of my time.

And then eventually you’ll do some data collection. If the project requires some primary research and then it’s the whole process of data collection, of qualitative research, you’re familiar with, in terms of setting up studies and scheduling things and recruiting people and doing interviews, analysis process, that’s the kind of end to end thing.

Then lots of time is spent on what we would call activation of research. And that’s basically getting the research out there so people listen to it and use it to inform decisions, which is itself a whole activity that requires time and investment so it’s not just wasted effort.

So depending on where I am in a particular project, it’ll be coordination stuff, more research that you might be familiar with, data collection, analysis or activation. And in reality, I probably got multiple projects and they’ll be all at different phases. So it might be coordination with one project data collection for another, and they’re all running in parallel, but on slightly different timelines. I have to figure out on a day-to-day basis what’s the right thing to prioritize my day today. And same tomorrow and so on. That’s something that’s valued is your ability to work autonomously, and manage your own workload and seek out opportunities to make things happen. Which is I think something that a PhD actually does a good job in training you at, that ability to take the initiative and just kind of do it without someone having to micromanage you.

RB: Were there any ways in which you were shocked by the different working conditions as an employee in the music industry compared to a researcher, or did you feel like it was just stepping from one to the other rather smoothly?

JW: I think there’s some things that academia I think equips you well for, and that kind of autonomous working is one of them, as well as like a kind of entrepreneurial spirit, in the sense that if you want to make a publication happen or a conference happen, you actually have to act, take steps to do so. And that’s the same in this context where you have to be quite entrepreneurial as well as being self sufficient. So those two things, and obviously your appreciation for rigor and high quality research is always a valuable skill whenever you’re doing research.

But then in a kind of industrial context that has to be balanced with the speed at which you have to work, which is very, very different. You have to learn to adapt to the speed of industry research where research projects, could be done within four weeks or six weeks or 12 weeks, not three years, four years, whatever it is for PhD. You’re on a different timescale. So you really have to trust your judgment about “This is the right thing to do here.” And if it’s not, that’s not the end of the world because you’re still learning and you will learn how to do it better next time. And it’s okay to fail sometimes.

RB: Are there any specific things that you really miss about that PhD lifestyle? Or are there any things that you’re just like so glad that you don’t have to deal with anymore?

JW: Yeah, I guess the depth of theoretical engagement, and the philosophical engagement was something that kind of interested me. And you don’t have the time to go that deep in industry research because the imperatives are different and why you’re doing the research is different. So you don’t have that opportunity to have those conversations sometimes. That’s something that I miss.

There’s a lot that I feel I’ve gained from working in the industry and collaboration being one of them, just working with other people on a day-to-day basis, rather than just being by yourself in your own head, trying to do your thesis. It’s a very solitary activity. There’s just sort of this kind of collaborative possibilities and gains a work with like other specialists, like data scientists, that they’re experts in their field. And I get to use that to help me. And they get to use me to help them. You have all of these resources that you never had access to before, because you were just by yourself doing your thing.

RB: So your academic careers sort of put you in this uniquely qualified position where you had the technical expertise and the background in music to make this transition to working for the companies that you have. So do you have any advice for students to develop the skills necessary to make a similar transition, even if their programs don’t prepare them for it?

JW: The biggest thing, and maybe this is a bit of a cliché, is about networking. And networking, one thing to remember: the friends and your fellow students and your colleagues in the future may work in particular places that you might want to work or know people that know other people that work in particular places. Even though you feel like you might not have any connections right now, the connections that you have with your colleagues could ultimately become connections that can help you with your own career.

And then another thing that’s more for PhD students is that for me, I don’t enjoy networking as like a standalone thing. I don’t want to go network with people. That doesn’t appeal to me. I need an excuse to network. And for me, excuses was always presenting at conferences or doing like workshops or conferences and that kind of thing, because I know I’m not going to go up to somebody and talk to them, but if I’m in a workshop with them, or if I’m on a panel with somebody, that’s automatically three people that I have an excuse to talk to, who are probably also doing something related to me, by virtue of being on the same panel. So already you’ve just filtered out, from all the possibilities for people to speak to, a subgroup of people that actually have might be of interest to you. They’ve heard your work, you’ve heard theirs, so it’s an excuse to talk to people. And also the other people in the room might come and talk to you because you’ve given a presentation and that’s sparked a conversation.

I would never go to a conference without a presentation scheduled or without participating in anything, or just go cold to a conference. Then I’ll never speak to anyone. But I do these things and I will speak to them or people will speak to me because they’ve heard me speak. So that was something that was really helped me to network is, if you don’t feel comfortable being the one that approaches everybody, find excuses to bond with others through these events. And then it’ll just come more naturally to you. Those networks are ultimately very valuable later on. So that is a practical thing that I would say,

RB: Well, thank you very much. This has been a great conversation. I appreciated hearing everything that you have to say. I was wondering if you had any closing thoughts about the theme of our podcast, which is transitioning from academia to other careers, or at least keeping in mind that other career opportunities are available.

JW: I guess it’s just being open to possibilities, because you never know what’s going to come up through the kind of people that you meet or the directions that your research is going to take you. If you’re not open to those possibilities, then you may close yourself off and nothing will happen. But I think keeping an open mind that things might not go to the plan that you had, that can sometimes be okay. And also to remember that PhD students have some valuable skills to apply, not only in relation to the thesis topic, but all those things that we’ve talked about as well. Use that to feel confident about what you can contribute.

RB: Awesome. I think that’s a great way to wrap up. Thank you again for your time. Really appreciate it. And thanks everyone for listening and talk soon.

PC: This episode was produced by Pallas Catenella and Suraj Saifullah. If you’d like to be featured as a guest on our podcast, or have suggestions for who we might invite, feel free to email us at contact@workingphds.com. You can find this address as well as a link to our website. In the description of each episode, our working PhDs project has been generously supported by the Humanities Center of New York, the Central New York Humanities Corridor the University of Rochester Humanities Center and the Institute for Music Leadership at the Eastman School of Music. We’d like to thank our guests for sharing their stories and the graduate student workers and faculty mentors whose tireless efforts went into creating this podcast. Thank you for listening.