The accidental techie (10): Finished

  [ 1) the accidental techie2) the uninvited3) transference california4) flow5) shadowing6) going inside 7) lost and found8) 20/20 9) creating, 10) finished ]

The bliss of an empty inbox

Il n’ y a pas du feu au lac…

– Vaudois saying

I often wonder why I blog. I’ve even blogged about it, of course I have, though I often come to the end of something I have been blogging about and think yep that’s it, that’s the last blog I will ever write.

However, I am ready to organise my ideas into another format and make them sustainable in case the next blog is my last or I want to take my website down. I have spoken to several, very nice, people in the publishing world and even though the feedback has been so wonderful, I can’t quite find get on board with the constraints and boxes to not think outside of. Given this getting a book published idea has been a goal of mine for a long time, I am surprised at myself instead of huzzah, I just hear money, tick this box, contraints, blah blah, here’s a hoop jump through it. It is very different from blogging as I drink tea and swizzle round on my spinny chair and writing about things which make me feel super excited and thrilled. I understand people want to make sure you are a horse worth backing before they invest time, money and energy into you. However, given my need to please, I can’t help feel the way that I am trying to squeeze square peg self, yet again, into a round hole, it all feels a bit like the medium might just become the message and the parts of my writing which appeal to me and other people may well get lost in the process. And, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from trawling through my life during this accidental techie series is that it is important to listen to my heart.

The other thing is that I always tell myself that I only write about computing which is just a big fat lie. I write about myself on here all the time. So, why do I feel the need to lie? I guess I feel vulnerable, though I was thrilled when someone said on YouTube the other day that being vulnerability is a superpower, but vulnerable is scary and even though it’s not true I still think that no one is reading. Also, I feel that it is rather self-absorbed to be taking up precious bandwidth about my feelings. Funnily enough, the other day someone left me a comment telling me that I was a nasty self absorbed stalker which echoed my thoughts as I had blogged about how bad I felt about telling someone how I felt (let down) and my name is Stalker. I have never really felt allowed to express myself, I was taught not to burden people and when I had a chat about with a friend, she said and I agree, that it’s a woman thing – we were taught to put up and shut up. The troll who left comments here really needled me and got me thinking: Perhaps they are right? Or, perhaps they were just repeating something someone once said to them? I’ve always been quite hard on myself and so it isn’t anything I’ve not already said to myself. However, and I can’t find the blog I’ve written about it in, we do take people online as experts – especially influencers – over the opinions of people we know. And, conversely strangers’ comments can hurt us but not as much as our loved ones can. Thankfully, no one close to me shares the opinion of me being a nasty self-absorbed stalker, or at least they’ve never said as much, and this troll-y person didn’t leave a proper name or whatever so they are not experts or influencers or anyone really. They are nameless and faceless, as bullies often are, I was going to link to some other research but to be honest, I have wasted too much bandwidth on it already and am going to take the advice of Dame Helen Mirren:

Great advice from Dame Helen Mirren

Global warming is a huge concern, we have everything online and now we have data centres in the North Pole or wherever there’s a cold place to save on air conditioning, they are melting the ice caps and it’s so wasteful compared to way back when we viewed memory as precious and every input was calculated and carefully made and stored in a sparse matrix as memory was hard to come by. In California they turned off the electrical cables to prevent wild fire and people were roaming the streets in what sounded like a post-apocalyptic melt-down looking for wifi as we are all so codependent on our phones and my imagination runs riot and I think who am I to be wasting precious resources on my thoughts? And, that’s without getting into thinking about all those people who don’t have access to anything they need, like fresh water. It is unbelievable how we have all these resources and yet some people do not have access to fresh drinking water.

In almost every blog I write about anything I summarise Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, especially when we share on social media in a sentence: we all want to be heard, we all want to feel like we matter to which I added in the last blog because we all want to feel better. Actually, I think all this time, I’ve really been talking about myself. I’ve really been talking it over with myself and I read and research a lot to make sense of our ever shifting digital landscape. I am always asking the three usability questions any UX consultant hopes that their user can answer: Where have we been? Where are we now? Where are we going?

I began this blog series with the same questions about myself as somewhere along the line I have forgotten what it is like to have fun when I am thinking about work. I am not even studying the theory of fun, at least that would be useful. It just feels like that there is always another hoop to jump through, someone else who needs impressing, and you have to have the right number of hits or followers on twitter and all that nonsense, and even when you get that, speaking from experience, it is meaningless, it is not my measure of being impressed, and just lately, I am wondering where are the people who are going to impress me, wow me, inspire me? It’s the easiest thing in the world to criticise. It is so much harder to create and it seems that online people either do one, or the other.

Last week, I was in Bikram and someone was standing in from of me blowing their nose and throwing the tissue on the floor. No where else in society is it socially acceptable to honk your conk on your snot-rag and just fling it on the floor, it really is disgusting. So, I asked the person to please tuck her tissue under her towel as it was grossing me out. She got really angry and refused to do it and then spent the rest of the class not only blowing her nose and throwing it on the floor but turning round so that she could give me evil death stares whilst she did it. I hate angry confrontation and was thrown into one of those transference flashbacks full of self-recrimination. So, I did my usual and apologised profusely which made her go on and on at me. Luckily, a couple of people came up afterwards to ask how I was and said: You didn’t do anything wrong.

It was lovely of them but alas, I still carried the ugh feeling with me all day and the thought: If only I hadn’t asked, which is ridiculous. It was a reasonable request, expressed politely, but it triggered something in the person who decided that the only way to respond was with an angry outburst and sustained passive-aggressive behaviour directed at me until the teacher asked them to stop.

Typing this now makes me all nervous since it came the day after I was trolled here on my website, which is such trigger for me. If ever there was an incident anywhere and I told my mother she invariably said: Well you must have done something wrong, otherwise it wouldn’t have happened. So, if I hadn’t been blogging here about my feelings I wouldn’t have had my very own troll come forward and feel the need to leave comments with one goal to intentionally hurt me. You succeeded, well done, I hope you are very proud.

The troll of my dreams, alas, not my website

I also hope that my mother was trying to say that there are two sides to every story and not just being a bit of a tyrant (which alas sometimes she could be as she had an amazing scary temper) – like Bikram nose blower, she felt unfairly singled out, she doesn’t know that my immune system remains compromised and I am likely to catch whatever she is waving around – but really all I ever wanted from my mother or anyone was a bit of understanding and in the really painful moments: That sucks to be in that situation. I’m sorry that happened to you, which is what I try to do when someone shares something with me. Whether I succeed or not is another story. I try but I am beginning to see that I am sometimes a hot mess and I won’t ever reach that place where I feel balanced or happy or successful because it doesn’t exist. It is not a destination, it’s fleeting and when it happens there’s no need to hold on so tight.

I have trailed right through from my beginning as an accidental techie to now, and once more I feel like I have nothing else to say, and there’s nothing else I want to do. But then I often think that and I come back as the best bit of HCl is that it is always changing. Sometimes I am tired of being so cerebral that I run off and do other things like that time I trained to be a yoga teacher, I like yoga, I love yoga, I just don’t want to teach it (but if I did, snot rags would be banned, just saying), and I trained as a journalist and a tarot reader, and a creative writer, though I turned down my place on the MA as I don’t need another degree. And, then I come back to it, I come right back to being an accidental techie. It’s what I love to do and that has to be a measure of success – being lucky enough to do what you love and to take a break too. That’s privilege.

Success is not a destination. Feeling good or balanced or Zen is not a destination. Happiness is not a destination. All these things are subjective anyway. The good news is that it’s all fleeting and temporary which means that this funky mood I am in today is fleeting too and the bad feeling I have from asking for what I need will pass too, and it was with this realisation, once more as it’s not new, I finally understand what the Vaudois phrase above is on about: There’s no crisis. People used to say often at the quatre heure apero: on est bien ici, and il n’y a pas du feu au lac. If you aren’t in the middle of a crisis then all is well, sit back and enjoy your 2dl of vin blanc. And, that’s the thing, I’ve lived through quite a few crises it’s just that sometimes my mind doesn’t know the difference, it thinks it has to keep striving, keep meeting those goals, keep firefighting. Il n’y a pas du feu au lac.

This weekend was the 10th anniversary of our family transplant, which is super amazing, and I am so grateful to all those wonderful medical people who worked miracles – nurses, doctors, surgeons, consultants, counsellors, everyone – who saved my daughter’s life, kept my husband safe, saved my life, saved my mum’s and dad’s lives and gave us extra time together until they died. And, I kept thinking that I can hardly believe that we are still here, after everything we’ve lived through and that on est bien ici and il n’ ya pas du feu au lac though my parents are dead and gone. So, my little family went camping at the weekend to celebrate 10 years and we were dancing about under the stars in wonder and joy and sadness and hysterical laughter at the way life works.

And, this has made me think, as has writing here, I can’t control what other people say and do, and writing here gives me great joy, even when it pains me, I can only focus on what I want and either fix what I don’t, or leave them alone, snot rags and verbal abuse, and trolling, and the neighbours blocking our drains because they can’t be arsed not to put baby wipes down the sewage pipes even though they’ve been asked many times not too #ffs, and it’s me who has to call the plumber out.

So, I intend not to bend myself out of shape to keep the peace or jump through yet another hoop in the hope that everything will work out ok. I am planning to be like Jia Jiang who set out to get rejected for 100 days but was pleasantly surprised because people are really nice on the whole. And, I believe that too. No one is doing anything to purposely upset me, not even that troll on here who was typing NO ONE GIVES A SHIT ABOUT YOU. It was obviously very triggering for them and they are wrong PEOPLE DO GIVE A SHIT ABOUT ME. I am so lucky I can count on at least one hand the PEOPLE WHO REALLY, REALLY LOVE ME and hold me and tell me that OFTEN AND I LOVE IT AND I LOVE THEM (and I love you, random citizen). Yes! That is where I want to focus all my time and energy, on people and projects that fill me up and which I deem to make me feel good.

I chunter on here about how the Internet has compressed time and space and blah blah but lying awake in the tent with freezing toes (I forgot my thermal socks) I got to experience the great joy of how the world is always busy, 24/7, busier than my crazy mind and my even crazier troll on a hate rampage. The world is full, all night, of people driving trains, dogs howling, owls hooting, people snoring and fighting and crying and loving, crows crowing, cows mooing and I am thrilled. Thrilled to be a part of every single bit, to breath deeply, to lie under the stars and be a part of everything. I am so grateful to be here. But, sometimes I forget where I have been which is why blogging is great to keep a trace. And, there I was in the middle of the night, far from anything and yet I did wonder why the fuck have I spent any time at all thinking that I need hits, and twitter followers and all that nonsense so that someone else can use that as a measure of my success. I am supposed to decide what success is and what it means to me. I am the one. This is my story, mine. No one else can tell it for me.

I am the one because I said so.

Danielle LaPorte, White Hot Truth

So! Instead of lying awake, I have resolved to follow in the footsteps of Christopher Alexander and Edward Tufte – creative inspiring people I have quoted lots of times and whose beautiful classic books I go back to time and again – who self-published because they had a vision. (Oh and so did Danielle LaPorte and her White Hot Truth book.) I don’t really have a vision but the thing I want to do isn’t really what a publisher or agent would feel worth their time and energy, which is fair enough. I really believe everything I write about the gatekeepers of culture and publishing and the media so it feels natural that I just create the thing I want to create and self-publish and have a nice time, rather than asking people to co-create something I am not clear about. It looks like I am finally taking my own advice, and that is very nice. That has to be a measure of success and that has to be a destination. I guess I will second-guess myself again at some point but for now I am determined. And, I love how easy it is now to self-publish. It really is. How amazing is that? What would Licklieder have made of that?

I have deleted my webstats as I am so sick of measuring things, and I am just going to get on with enjoying how I feel when I am creating, that is my new yardstick, my feelings. I am going to get me a vision which will hopefully lead to me creating something very beautiful from what I have already created here and from what I feel is awesome and it probably won’t fit into any box but that’s okay by me. My intention is to light my own fire, instead of waiting for someone to either do it for me, or give me permission and if I can’t do that then at the very least, I can have some fun trying. And, the best part is, no one can tell me whether I am successful or not, as in the words of that other great dame:

I’ll be the judge of that

– RuPaul
RuPaul being the judge of that…

The accidental techie (8): 20/20

  [ 1) the accidental techie2) the uninvited3) transference california4) flow5) shadowing6) going inside 7) lost and found8) 20/20 9) creating, 10) finished ]

I hate spreadsheets.

I got started with 20/20 back in the day when I was at ICI and had to make some alterations to a database linked to a 20/20 set up. Later, I was given the task of embracing Lotus 1-2-3 and writing macros and a bit of an interface for a group of accountants. It struck me even then that I was asking a bit much of the spreadsheet software.

In my last lecturing position I was expected to give student feedback in spreadsheet format, so I had to type my comments in teeny tiny boxes, rather like when you are trying to DM someone in Twitter in a tiny box. I found the teeny tiny boxes just not big enough nor the right format for everything I had to say and I would regularly lose my stuff. The only saving grace with the spreadsheet was that after a while if I opened all of my spreadsheets at once, Excel would remember what I had typed so I could reuse and tailor some of my previous comments. But, on the days that didn’t work I would tap my comments into notepad and paste them in. Why did it have to be so difficult?

Consequently, I did not enjoy marking with spreadsheets. I couldn’t trust that my comments would be saved and sometimes the macros wouldn’t copy across and I would have to type in the marks by hand (which caused my line manager to send me the most unreasonable email ever. I had to write back and point out the rudeness of it all. He should have documented how to use the spreadsheet). It was so time-consuming and a perfect example of how I was asked to use a spreadsheet when another format would have been much better. I think spreadsheets should be used for numerical manipulation. Yes, that’s right. Adding, counting and so on. Manipulating numbers to make more numbers and creating new information and new insights into data sets using more numbers and graphs.

(But when I hear people talk about how they manipulated their big data in a spreadsheet with a pivot table, I just want to say: If you can load your data into a spreadsheet, it’s not big data. Big data is a lot of data, bigger than a spreadsheet can handle. #justsayin)

I used to prepare my end of year accounts in a spreadsheet because it was suitable. I did not write my accounting report in the spreadsheet as it was not suitable. When I am writing something I write it in word processing software – I was in love with LaTeX for the longest time, still am, to be honest – but I don’t like words in a spreadsheet.

It has taken a while for me to know myself enough like this. If someone else’s formatting isn’t working for me and there is an alternative then I will take it or make it. At the moment I am working on a new project which is great fun and quite challenging. However, I was given a template in a spreadsheet which really seemed to interfere with my ability to plan.

Spreadsheets with words in them give me my very own Stroop effect, which is when a colour description word e.g., red, is printed in a colour different to its semantic meaning, e.g., red is written in blue. When I am asked to write words in spreadsheets, it boggles my brain, makes me resistant, and interferes with me doing the task well. I like knowing that about myself.

I feel the same way about powerpoint slides for lecturing. They really aren’t the best way to deliver information, and I have loved reading all the various viewpoints of the debate: Is powerpoint making us stupid? Is it helping us? But, this is the article with which I totally agree: Let’s ban powerpoint in lectures – it makes students more stupid and professors more boring.

In my experience, I think it is too easy to boil things down to bullet points and not fill in the gaps and it doesn’t occur to many of the students I have taught to take notes, so they have nothing to look at when the time comes to revise. I have created long slides full of information and at other times slides with nothing on them but pictures and managed to fail my students all ways. The same goes for the spreadsheet feedback approach.

Sometimes I am really excited about using software differently, like that time I got excited about databases for storytelling, but no the database isn’t replacing the narrative anytime soon. I love to think about no function in structure and serendipitous design but find it hard to believe that they apply to spreadsheets and powerpoint even if constraints are known to help creativity.

The same with post-it notes – the UX consultant’s favourite tool – post-its all over the wall to swap them about and find the patterns. Me, I struggle, that is not how my brain works at all. I tried with mind maps too as they look nice – but it was the same thing, I got a brain freeze. I wondered about this when I was storyboarding my CV and concluded that different mediums change the focus. Ah yes. I want to be clear, I want to know what I am focusing on before I decide on where I am focusing. I want 20/20 vision.

I did wonder if the 20/20 spreadsheet was named after the idea of 20/20 vision and learnt that the term 20/20 is technically incorrect when used to mean great eyesight and the ability to see things clearly.

Oh, I have long loved thinking about seeing things clearly especially in yogic terms with clearing the lens of perception as we interpret our life experiences and our embodiment. And, it is the same for me with the spreadsheet: If I am forced to look at something a particular way then how can I see it differently?

I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about comfort, and how someone comforted me when my mum was really ill. Someone online wanted to be in my life, came into it, and was a daily comforting presence for a long time until the day they just ghosted me for no apparent reason and how sad I felt. I was disposal. Just after I posted the blog, they sent me a sort of round robin email, it felt phoned in which was really disappointing as I was super excited to hear from them after months of silence. Sad, but not wanting to ignore them, as I hate being ignored, I sent them a link to the blog in response to the what’s new with you question. After clicking send, I was so embarrassed about how weird my behaviour was, I wrote an email explaining myself, I got no reply, and then this week found myself vlogging about how social anxiety is linked to emotional resonance, which then of course, led to me mentioning the comfort person indirectly. I can’t stop going on about them because even though I understand how such a virtual connection occurs and I’ve blogged about it, I am still amazed by the depth of emotion I feel.

My husband asked me if I was sending that link too. Oh my! I wish I hadn’t sent anything at all, but I just wanted to understand and I wanted to be heard. I should have stepped back because now the hubby is mocking me: Mumble mumble, restraining order, I just happened to be passing by your house and was only trying to help by straightening that dodgy roof tile. (This is a joke. I have to spell this out as someone left a comment calling me a nasty stalker. Though I must say I’m flattered by the analysis they’ve applied to this blogpost, leaving multiple comments, and rereading it many times. Thank you.)

I need to think before I act. Comfort person couldn’t ever understand why I needed to analyse things so much. Erm so I don’t act like a weirdo, that’s why. Since then, I have done some top quality analysis (nearly as much as my comments person who seems to be a last word peep, alas, like me, but this is my blog, so jog on). But, I seem to be lacking information. I put it to them: If I have to look at it in a specific way, without your input, how can I see it differently? I think we all feel the same way. We want closure. We just want to know that we didn’t do anything wrong. We need the it’s not you, it’s me speech. An apology would be nice too.

I cheered up today listening to a Danielle Laporte podcast in which she talks about analysing herself a lot, and she is quite intense, ooooh like me, my last blog in this series was very intense, which is probably why I like listening to her talk about the things she does to feel lighter and get clearer. She had just finished a weekend of EMDR, I’m not sure I’d be into that level of analysis, as that is diving deep, but never say never, whatever works to feel better, is my motto.

Normally, I say we all want to be seen, heard, and feel like we matter, (the opposite of being ghosted), to which I want to add that we all just want to feel better. Personally if I have a why that helps. It cannot be that this person is just a total arse and I have wasted lots of time and energy on them. They can’t be the sort of person who will purposely dismiss another person. Can they? I just cannot believe that. Like all humans, I just need for it to make sense and I need to square it with myself.

Laporte said in another podcast if someone won’t talk to you about something why not to talk to their higher selves about. Oooh like talking to a ghost. I’m not sure that this person is in touch with their higher self otherwise they would behave better (miaow). But, as Ecstatic Breathwork Guru, Scott Schwenk says: We are all consciousness in drag, which I love so much, so perhaps getting a bit mystical is a nice way to go.

Or perhaps I should just get real, embrace my 20/20 vision, see that more information isn’t forthcoming and realise like the 20/20 spreadsheets way back when, I am asking a bit much of them. So yeah, they can fix their own roof tiles in the future, the total arse.

I hate spreadsheets and ghosting – they don’t help me to see things differently, they just press my buttons (like this blog has for the repeating comments person who wants to be heard too and is tenacious getting through the spam filters. Nice!), which leads to rash behaviour. So, I will forgive myself and eventually will forgive them namaste-style with a twist of mysticism and never send their ghosty arse, even if they round robin me which they probably won’t now, another link to my blog, ever (although they’ve not read this one yet, aha, perhaps I should just…). It’s just too weird, and I put my hand up I have added to the general weirdness of what was once a lovely connection. What I would like is to do is to live without the worry of feeling embarrassed and weirdness in the case our paths cross again and I can’t hide my binoculars in time. So, what will I do? Who knows? But whatever I do, I will probably go on about it for far too long, get accused of being a stalker (that’s my name don’t wear it out). I’ll probably write about it too, so if you don’t enjoy reading this sort of thing, do us all a favour, ghost me and my website, apply your indepth analysis to you and your feelings, and write about it on your blog, and please don’t worry about me, I’ll be just fine.

[ part 9 ]

The accidental techie (7): Lost and found

1) the accidental techie2) the uninvited3) transference california4) flow5) shadowing6) going inside 7) lost and found8) 20/20 9) creating, 10) finished ]

Growing up I wanted to be a botanist just like David Bellamy, but changed my mind when I found out that I would have to cut up dead animals in biology to get to my goal. For a little while I wanted to be a police officer when the local bobby came into school, but back then there were height restrictions, and I was far too small.

After that, I switched to wanting to be a journalist, and indeed years and years after I first thought of it, I got a pgdip in journalism which was great fun hanging out with twentysomethings again and flashing a press card but I just couldn’t hound people for a story when they were at their lowest ebb. Deciding, however, to become a university lecturer was such a gradual, accidental thing, that I barely remember a time now when I didn’t want to be one.

It began in my final year of computing undergrad at LJMU when a gang of us went to karaoke night at the pub and then back to ours where we found a bottle of Ricard behind the fridge. It was covered in dust and God knows what or how long it had been there, but one of the lads was like: This is how you drink it. He mixed it up with water and sat clutching the bottle to his chest, literally all night, telling us about his broken heart after his summer of love in France, whilst we laughed a lot, like you do in a bubble of Ricard sharing stories with friends.

The next day we all had final year project meetings, three of us with the same supervisor. I wonder if he noticed that we were acting stranger than usual. I was a bit overexcited in that had-too-much-to-drink-and-no-sleep way and couldn’t stop babbling on, but felt better about it when Ricard man came out his meeting dying of embarrassment as he had actually fallen over partway through.

Our supervisor was such a lovely man and did great lectures – not that I appreciated them at the time – and it was during my meeting, that he asked me what I wanted to do when I left university. He was really cool and had helped me back in my first year shortly after a friend from home had taken his own life and I was finding it hard to make sense of things. That year I got exactly the pass mark in the supervisor’s exam, not a coincidence I know, I have done it myself for my students. I thought really hard about his question and as I looked into his kind face, I said that I wanted to be a university lecturer, like him. He said: You’ll need a PhD, which seemed like such a daunting prospect that I immediately dismissed it as a possibility.

Growing up on our council estate, very few people had jobs. It was a time of upheaval and massive job shedding in the steel and chemical industries, redundancies, lay off, mines closing, and so on. So the idea that you could choose a job and a career path and not just take anything that you were offered, and feel lucky, was still an alien concept to me. Someone asking me what I wanted to do with my life, like I mattered, like it was important, and then listening to what I had to say and not telling me what I should do, was just such a gift, that years later typing this, I am as touched as I was right back then in that room with that man who talked to me like I had potential and that I was a person who could choose.

I did get a PhD. The opportunity came by accident, not long after I had completed an MSc in AI, again an accident, which had come about because someone re-posted an advert the admissions officer at Aberdeen University sent out via email in a last-ditch attempt to fill 20 places on his MSc with exchange programs to France. I only saw the advert because after I graduated I stayed on at LJMU for the summer, employed by my lovely supervisor to create tutorial materials, which I really enjoyed, and also it was great as I had access to everything I needed to apply for jobs.

I saw the advert as a way to live in Paris and remember going round to the AI lecturer and asking if she would write down some words for me to get me on the MSc as I wanted to live in Paris. She was slightly, in the loveliest way, offended, and asked me why I hadn’t chosen her AI module. Simples: It was 4-6 pm on a Tuesday afternoon, and the parallel computing module was on a Monday at a more sensible time and had a 50% coursework so I could know that I had passed before going into the exam. I’d learnt occam and became a huge fan of the origami editor (can’t find a link, only one to 3D origami modelling which looks fascinating). Her help totally got me on the course however, the admissions officer sent me to Chambéry near the Alps, but me being me, fell in love with all that fresh air and cycling so much so that I didn’t want to go back to rainy England. Though, I did hitch to Paris that summer to see a friend from the course. Christ, I also hitched round the Dorgdogne, getting a lift off a slightly scary bloke he pulled over a few times to say: Madame, vous etes tres belle. But, that’s a different blog.

Once in France, another advert for the next job – which again got reposted from elsewhere as they were having trouble filling the position, it was for a GUI programmer in some random place called Lausanne – popped up in my inbox, I couldn’t wait to send off my CV. Alas, I made such a hash of the interview and I was so upset, it was such a lovely town where people spoke French slowly and in such a gentle way and were so helpful, that I remembering standing in tears on La Place de la Riponne, desperately yearning to stay. So, much so that the minute I got back to my computer in Chambéry (via Geneva, two trains, and a party at the local language school – imagine waiting that long nowadays) I emailed the interviewer to explain that I was normally brilliant at interviews and if he could only give a second chance he would never be sorry.

I am not sure I kept that promise because I still remember his super red face during a massive outburst in a meeting: I hate her, she comes in here full of her own ideas. I won’t lie, it was hurtful. I thought I was supposed to have my own ideas. Isn’t that the whole point of a PhD? I thought I saw him a couple of years ago on the tube, and had a flashback to that day.

After my PhD, I took a year off to go travelling. This was because when I left Switzerland I was given a lot of my tax back so I was given a lump sum. I asked a few people around me what they would do with it. The responses were varied: 1. Put a deposit on property. 2. Buy a car. But, you need roots to do that, so seeing the world was a unique opportunity. Now, with a property and a car and a family and responsibilities, I am so glad I went.

It was a bit stressful dropping out as well meaning people advised me that it was a bad move.  In that time my peers would be publishing and getting jobs, and generally getting ahead of me and I would have trouble getting a job when I got back. I didn’t have any difficulty at all but because I figured I was behind, I went straight to lecturing instead of a post-doc. If I had to do it all again, I would have applied to post-docs and got some publishing going and some guidance. I did apply for one post-doc, but the supervisor there was so unpleasant, even when offering me the job, in a you are so not any good but I can’t find anyone better way that I turned it down on the phone. I remember her saying to think about it. And, I was like: No need. Instead, I got the job I had always wanted and chose a difficult path for myself, lecturer. It’s only saving grace was that it was in human-computer interaction (HCI), a subject which fascinated me in Switzerland as a GUI programmer and PhD student, and ever since as HCI lecturer, researcher, and UX consultant. After life gave me the opportunity to be a mum, a dialysis nurse, and a cancer patient, going back to HCI and lecturing helped me find my way back to myself after a lot of joy and pain.

I don’t know how the world works and I do often ask what it’s all about, Alfie? But, there’s one thing I am starting to believe, just by dint of experience, is we get the same lessons over and over and over, until we learn it.

Inasmuch as I thought I had learnt to choose what was right for me, I hadn’t at all. When I went to interview for my first lecturing position, I was in a waiting room with other people and I was overwhelmed with a sense of despair, like a drowning sensation. Fool that I was, I ignored my gut instincts and accepted the job because there were two people there with whom I wanted to work with, and I was slightly starstruck. I didn’t get to work with anyone, I was put in an office by myself, with no furniture and one of the secretaries used my office for storage and couldn’t understand why I got upset. I kid you not. I had to beg the head of department for some furniture and a laptop. I had to figure everything out by myself, and the lecturing was such a small part, I had to get a team, get funding, do all this stuff, all by myself, without any support. I was the first lecturer they had come in from the outside in years, and it never occurred to anyone that I may need a bit of help. Every other lecturer either came in at a senior position with their own team, or they had come through the ranks all the way from undergraduate and were supported. I was outside of that and only when I requested an exit interview on my way out the door after an awful time did the head of department admit that they hadn’t treated me very well. I had just felt so lost in the supposed job of my dreams.

The next time I ignored my instincts at a job interview, it didn’t end well at all, either. When would I learn? It was for a usability consultant position. I applied for it, as I was lecturing HCI part-time and had suffered a miscarriage and we had not long moved to London, and I was super sad, super lost. I thought getting into a full-time schedule would keep me occupied so I didn’t sink into a sadness I couldn’t get out of, and also I would meet some new people, and make some new friends. Again, sitting in a waiting area talking to people I felt that same drowning sensation and again, I ignored myself and took the job, convincing myself that it would be ok. I had the worst time ever.

For ages they didn’t give me any work to do and made me just sit about in the office and could I please answer the phone and empty the dishwasher? I asked for the time off to give some lectures that we had agreed I would do during my interview should I get a job there, but they were unimpressed – that I should think I was entitled to that sort of thing. Who did I think I was? I pointed out that I had nothing to do and really I could empty the dishwasher on my return. Grudgingly they let me go and then gave me a biggish project with terrible timescales and a supervisor who after it all went badly wrong, admitted when I asked him – you always have to ask people otherwise they just hide in the corner and refuse to accept that they are responsible too – that he was too intimidated to supervisor me or offer any advice. (I was using cultural probes to get the information I needed and wrote about it later so I pulled something good out of the whole fiasco.) They had very specific ways of doing things but he couldn’t bring himself to tell me instead he would come to my desk and talk about nothing in particular for at least an hour at a time all about how good he was (another woman would rewrite everything I wrote instead of explaining what was required so that it felt very much like shifting sands) and make me feel stressed about the time I was losing and I would ask if what I was doing was ok and because he never said it wasn’t I assumed I was on the way to giving him what was needed for the project we were working on! So peculiar. I struggled a lot and was already not 100% given the bleeding I was still managing and I was struggling from anxiety (like I do sometimes) and couldn’t get on public transport which one of my colleagues took as yet another sign of my diva-ness. When I look back I see that I was a bit of a mess and shouldn’t have been there at all, but only one person noticed.

He was one of the tech lads and one day he came over to me and asked me to go to the shop with him. It seemed a peculiar request but I went along anyway. We walked there and he just talked a bit about the weather, and insisted that I try coconut water (yuk) and then on the way back he finally said what he wanted to, which was not to take on so, not take it so personally, and so on, and explained that their passive-aggressive behaviour was on them, including how they regularly told him there was no work for him and he was there on a week by week basis. Baffled, by the term passive-aggressive, he explained it to me and made me laugh by saying that when he got the manager a cup of tea, he would spit in it. Brilliant. But, not true, he was would never have done such a thing as he was such a lovely gentle soul.

I got fired shortly afterwards and was hustled from the building like I’d done something wrong. The reason I was fired: I didn’t fit. I never saw my tech guy again. We didn’t fit in that place, I know that as his kindness that day helped me get through a tricky patch. He was good at his job, he fixed things for me a few times, but they didn’t treat him well and let him know regularly that he was surplus to requirements and that his job was not secure. I hate them to this day for that as it was his lifeline but they didn’t bother to check. They just didn’t care. He had his struggles so that he could see suffering in others like he did that day with me. But, it wasn’t the sort of environment in which people behaved like that, it was a bruising one (I remember one female colleague refusing to let me speak one day because: You know everything.) it took a few days before anyone noticed that he hadn’t turned up for work. I think they wanted him to fix something. But he wasn’t able to because he had already taken his own life. Someone, weeks later, left me a message to tell me that they were buying a park bench in his memory. Which twentysomething in the history of the world has wanted to be remembered with a park bench? #ffs. That’s for old people. He just wanted not to have his job threatened everyday. He wanted to feel secure. He wanted to feel like he mattered – Maslow’s basic needs – without them we feel deficient. They bought him a fucking park bench. They’d have done better to give him that in wages.

I fell pregnant not long after this, and when my baby was born with kidney failure, I tried to have a job and be a mum but did one lecture and realised that I couldn’t teach and worry about her blood pressure and vomiting at the same time. It wasn’t fair to my students. And, there was no way I could hold down a job as a usability consultant, not without having flexible hours – which as we all know are not flexible at all – and not in a passive-aggressive environment like the one I had experienced. And, even though the hospital told us to go about being normal as possible, I couldn’t, I couldn’t do anything but sit by my baby’s bed and be with her in case she was only passing through. I needed to be by her side. I didn’t want to miss a minute as beautiful and as heartbreaking as it was. I couldn’t act like everything was normal.

There is too much emphasis on being normal and business as usual. During that first lectureship, a professor in conversation one day, casually asked me if I had really gone travelling for a year. Surprised, I asked him what else he thought I might have been doing. He said that a gap like that normally meant one of two things: a pregnancy or a nervous breakdown. Sad but true, nothing much changes. Society dictates that we not mention our kids or our mental health in case it affects our job prospects. We all pretend, we all suffer and bleed in silence.

I went to a women’s networking back to work thing when my girls both started school as I wanted more than just a bit of volunteering at the school and the odd web design job, and my previous boss at Westminster University was no longer working there. So, off I went to explore new possibilities. Wow. Part way through the day though, someone asked me something, I don’t remember what exactly, and I said that my baby had been born with renal failure and I had had cancer and everyone was horrified. I wanted to say that I hadn’t really had a choice in whether I got to be a stay-at-home mum or not. But, they didn’t want to hear it, they wanted me to stop making everyone uncomfortable and said I shouldn’t ever mention it not in that room, not on my CV, and definitely not in interview. These are some of my defining life experiences, how could I pretend not to have had them? How could I act as if they hadn’t changed everything. I was lost for words. I was lost.

I saw that I wouldn’t get the answers I needed, and finally understood the lesson, I have the answers I need, no one else knows what’s best for me. When I am lost, I need to find myself, no one can find me for me. So, I left the networking group and started applying once more for HCI lecturing positions. Course, all anyone sees is the gap on the CV and the lack of published papers, but I just didn’t want to publish, I just wanted to teach and not have to research teaching and education. I just wanted to teach and keep up with HCI so that I could teach it well. One time, I even got an email back saying I didn’t have the right skill set. I mean seriously?! I don’t have the skillset to teach HCI? I don’t have the skills to do the job I have already done?

A professor friend who gave me a reference said: Why not lecture something else? Does it have to be HCI? That advice was pure gold and the answer was: No it didn’t. So, I got myself back into university life on one of those zero hours jobs lecturing other people’s slides on web technologies.

Though I will be honest and tell you that I had the same sinking feeling during interview, can you credit it? I ignored myself again, but you know what, this time, it was ok, I did it to get my feet under the table, and they were desperate to fill the position so I started straight away and I had the experience to know what I needed and how to ask for it, and it seemed a small price to pay to hang about in the library. I love libraries and students who are on the whole so inspiring. In fact, I enjoyed it for a couple of years until my mum was dying and instead of struggling, I just said, I need to some time off, but as zero-hours contracting is the worst sort of job, they just fired me, thanks very much. I got that email the same day someone else who was a ‘proper’ member of staff was leaving. He got a cake in the common room and drinks. I got a brusque email. Zero hours are the worst. I miss the library, I miss the students, I miss my mum, but not the slides.

It’s autumn once more, and I have that new term, new academic year feeling and I am ready once more, for more HCI, for more lecturing, for more life, more students and more laughs. This time, older and wiser, I am ready to listen to myself and my gut instincts, and I am so pleased. I no longer feel lost, in fact I am starting to feel found and I like that. I like it very much. With the way technology has expanded over the last few years, there are so many different ways to teach, and I am looking forward to exploring them all and finding myself somewhere new in a new landscape, lecturing the HCI course of my dreams, which is what I always think. And, this is what I love about HCI and technology it is always changing, always expanding, and there is no need to get stuck or feel lost. I just to have to remember to go with the flow and remember where I have been. I am experiencing. How cool is that?

[ part 8 ]

The accidental techie (6): Going inside

my pad, av de france, Lausanne

1) the accidental techie2) the uninvited3) transference california4) flow5) shadowing6) going inside 7) lost and found8) 20/20 9) creating, 10) finished ]

One morning in my 20s, I woke up with a hankering for my own space. So, I said goodbye to my band of merry men with whom I was sharing a flat and found my own place on the top floor of a building which had a pizzeria in it.

The picture above is of that place. I lived alone and alongside studying for my PhD and doing projects shadowing my users and writing software for them, I think I was super keen on shadowing me, connecting to myself and being there for me.

I want to say that it was autumn when I moved in, but I don’t really remember to be honest, though I do remember standing on the little balcony at midnight which was cut out of the roof so that if felt very private, under a harvest moon which shone on the rooftops of Lausanne all the way down to lac leman, Evian and the Alps.

I remember the crisp night air and the rush of total happiness and excitement at being alive, utterly and blissfully alone, without anyone to bother me.

I remember how the sun moved around the flat during the day at different times during different seasons, and how good it felt on my skin in summer. In winter, I remember how the snow piled up on the balcony turning it into a huge white fridge so that when my pals and I made beer it was perfect to keep all our bottles chilled.

Living alone, I realised that I didn’t have to spend time with people inside my flat or outside who didn’t fill up my well. This revelation came to me in an instant one night when I was standing in the pub with a crowd of very nice people. I felt lonely and I wanted comfort. So, I put down my pint, said my farewells, and I ran all the way home, to greet myself, at my own door and I welcomed myself home. I think I probably took a bath too, by candlelight, as I gazed at the stars through the skylight in the bathroom roof.

It’s hard to see on the picture above but the roof sloped right down into the corner which the TV is facing. In that corner, I had made a nest of cushions to lie in, to think, to watch TV, tap on my laptop and be at home with myself. I should think, that night, I went and lay there.

It was a time before mobile phones and the Internet were used widely. If I was working at home which I did a lot, at night and at weekends, I would take what papers or software I needed home. I read them there and ran tests on my laptop.

I could leave all my notes out and no one wanted them tidying up ever because there was only me. And, even though it was full on studying and thinking and quite a few unreasonable deadlines, I remember it as a time of leisure and space and deep thought and lots of reading.

On weekends I would lie around eating shortbread biscuits and drinking tea with the occasional slice of cenovis on toast whilst reading books from the local library which was at the end of the street.

The library had an eclectic English section, probably aimed at itinerant people like me and I read the whole section over the time I was there. After a full day of study, coding, and communicating in French and civil engineering (which is a whole language in and of itself), it was a bit of a relief to relax with a book from the English section, books I never would have read if they hadn’t been there on the shelves, like the Gnomes of Zurich and Susan Howatch novels. One day, a Venezuelan woman came over and asked me if I would teach her girls to speak English and in return she would teach me Spanish. When I asked her how she knew that I was English, she told me that I looked like a porcelain doll holding a book written in English, and we did for a time exchange languages over dinner at her house with her family. It was nice. In turn I would cook dinner at my place, over a gin and tonic, for a Swiss lady who wanted to practice her English with me.

The day I left Lausanne, I ceremoniously took all the books I had bought during my time there and donated them to say thank you for all that the library had given me and to leave something for the section to remember me by.

The flat was great for parties and entertaining. The first dinner party I had, I made soup as a starter and was just turning round to serve it up when I realised I didn’t have any soup bowls. We had to make do with what was in the flat: a big cup, a deep plate, a pan, and so on. One friend who got the salad bowl said that she was just glad she didn’t get the dog bowl, horrified by my lack of organisation. I don’t know where that bowl had come from but it held soup just fine.

Sometimes, I would cook myself very elaborate dinners and open a really good bottle of red wine, a party for one. Other times I would stay up all night reading or writing or sitting under the stars on the balcony, or lie in the middle of the floor and talk to friends on the phone. My phone had a great big long wire so I could carry it right around the flat to talk and alternatively, I could not answer it or the door, if I didn’t want to, especially that time I had a stalker. Bless his lonely heart.

I was busy getting to know myself in the time honoured female rite of passage.

A lovely friend who helped me move told me over the beers we cracked open to celebrate my new pad (we did a special beer run and got a huge crate, and I think I had a flat warming party too) to relish every second as she hadn’t had long enough being alone. I didn’t believe her. I even read a book on living alone along with Women who run with the wolves ordered from that quaint new bookshop online called Amazon. She was right, though. I met the man who became my husband about six months later, and I’ve never really been alone since.

I love my family, I do, but I have occasional fantasies of being alone and living alone. In my dreams, especially when my subconscious is telling me something, I’m back in my flat sometimes alone, but mainly I am with other people. A couple of years ago, I dreamt that the flat was full of loads of people bothering me and an acquaintance handed me a key so that I could lock them out and regain my solitude and joy.

Like many women who have put themselves on the back burner as they raise their children, tend the home, do their jobs, and try to squash in their dreams and aspirations in the tiny slivers of time left over, I have lost touch with myself, I realise that I miss me and I occasionally crave the freedom I had back then.

If I am being totally honest with myself, sometimes I was lonely, the existential loneliness of being human, and I craved deep connection. But, if I was to meet my old self now and tell me about the even cooler flat I live in today, in London of all places, with my lovely little family which includes my cats – I always wanted a cat and now I have two – and that I became the mum/university lecturer/yogini I dreamed I could be, I am sure I would be pleased.

Last night after dinner, I stood in the garden with a glass of red wine, there was no moon to be seen, the air was damp but smelt of bonfires the way it does at autumn, and everyone came out to join me. I was happy to share the moment with them but could have done with a little longer by myself, and I was put in mind of my old self, in my old flat, by myself and it feels like now it is time once more to experience that space again and a coming back to me.

Today, I have gotten out my Halloween decorations. I’ve said before that I dread winter but with ritual, fluffy socks, fires, and warm milk, the heat of Bikram and new projects, autumn is less nowadays about endings and more about beginnings. Tarot reader, Dane Hart likens this time of year to hibernating, going deep, and I love to think that’s what I did all those years ago in my very own space. So, this autumn, I am super keen on remembering that energy, diving deep, connecting to myself and being there for me. I am ready to experience again that rush of total happiness and excitement at being alive and I can’t wait to see what I have to teach myself.

[ part 7 ]

The accidental techie (5): Shadowing

1) the accidental techie2) the uninvited3) transference california4) flow5) shadowing6) going inside 7) lost and found8) 20/20 9) creating, 10) finished ]

The other night, our youngest had a friend over for a sleepover. It so reminded me of shadowing, known in AI as knowledge elicitation and in software design as requirements engineering. Whatever you call it, it remains my favourite time in any project because it satisfies all my nosy urges. I love to go in and see who people are, what they do, and how they use technology in their environment: A stalker by any other name.

Our young friend was obviously seeing us in our natural habitat, but in conversation I got to hear all about her life too, which is quite different yet similar to ours. I was fascinated. Even so, with my new knowledge, I still feel very disconnected these days, and like most people fundamentally, want to know: What do other people do in their own homes? Especially raising children. Am I doing it right? My children’s lives are so different from my life as a child. It all seems a bit rigid to me and a bit too nuclear-family based, these days, but a friend said to me just recently that her life was exactly like that, no people just dropping in whenever, and that was normal to her, so you know, perhaps it’s not time, it’s geography.

That said, I struggle with the idea that there’s a rigid schedule and no random event or visitors. At my mum’s funeral, some of my cousins were reminiscing about how they’d often come down to breakfast to find one of our uncles sitting in the kitchen, even though he lived four doors down. And, when I was young, I would get the bus (9p for 2 miles) to my auntie’s house and stay for days, no one had to be somewhere you couldn’t go with them, unless it was the pub, and if the house was full, then you’d wake up in the morning with more people in bed with you than before you went to sleep.

It is different in the workplace, I am not having a sleepover (my niece: Auntie Ruth, you look so cute in your sleeping mask when you are asleep) or brushing my teeth with the people I shadow, but, I am their silent witness as they go about their business, and we all spend a lot of time at work. So, it is not surprising the stories people want me to know about them often include their personal lives. People are so much more than the jobs they are doing.

I had forgotten how excited I used to get about shadowing until last Saturday night. I was at a party and had such a laugh talking about computing and tarot. And then, I rode my bicycle home, under a very cool, late-midnight sky, past people in the park drinking beer, sitting in the remnants of a very hot summer’s day. Freewheeling it took me way back, to Lausanne, to those dark cycle paths and a midnight skinny dip in lac leman during my PhD days at EPFL.

For two years I was working on a project with exhibition planners at the Palais de Beaulieu, Lausanne. It was a really nice project though slightly tangential to my PhD so I would need to stay late on Thursday nights to prepare for the next day. I would normally peddle home around 2am feeling a lovely breeze after hours of programming, long after everyone had left.

But I didn’t mind, I used to like programming alone late at night. I would sit in my bra – the offices were hot – and lean out of the window for a slinky cigarette. Not that I really smoked, but a gauloise in a lacy bra out the window of the engineering department after a boiling hot day was sometimes just what that girl felt like she needed, on occasion, when things were compiling.

Those long nights were worth it, though. I loved going round the exhibition centre on Fridays to shadow the head draughtsman and see how he went about putting together an exhibition. On exhibition days we would walk about and he tell me exactly about the things you can’t model in a computer, but we’d try anyway. We’d try to model who didn’t want to be next to whom, following the classic AI problems of the travelling salesman and the eight queens, which don’t really work in the real world. He was an amazing teacher, always truthful with a charming diplomacy. I’d follow along making notes, sampling cheese and drinking vin blanc during the quatre heures. (I still do the quatre heures #friyays) there is nothing better than sitting down at 4pm for a little glass of vino and an amuse-bouche.

The one time I had an ethnographer do shadowing for me which I wrote about over on A List Apart, I so felt like I was missing out, even though I repeated him, saying that it was tedious, even though it never was to me. I thought I had to say it, to be one of the lads. Yeah, I know, I am not one of the lads and to top it all, with him doing the shadowing, I just felt like I was getting all the information second hand. But, I did get to spend a day watching the steel roll out in massive slabs in the mills at Corus, Teesside. Wow! That was a sight.

There were some sights at ICI too, not just when I was with me auld fellas, but in places like the Caustic Soda plant – it had a big pile of salt outside – and someone once said to me: Don’t even touch the door handles when you are in there. Hilarious. I went round various places mainly to fix computers with my screwdrivers and earth bracelet but most of the shadowing I did to figure out what software someone needed to support them in their job, was drumroll, in the accounts department.

The plus side of this was that I found that in an office, it is easier to look professional, out onsite with so many unknown variables sometimes it would be hard to look sensible. If I hadn’t dressed right and got my skirt stuck on some piping, or the time I couldn’t park the site car properly then I didn’t look like I knew what I was doing at all and that could be detrimental to me being taken seriously.

I got the job onsite because I had a driving licence. But, my driving wasn’t very good. I’d never had a car, my parents never had a car, in fact the only experience of driving I had had up until that point was the 25 lessons to pass my test and one go in my big brother’s car which had left-hand drive so it made everything even more confusing. However, tenacious as ever, I didn’t let my lack of experience hold me back.

One time, I was trying to park the car back into it’s spot. It was a smallish parking space and it was on a hill, and there was a skip and a lorry, and another car not properly parked and if I had had more experience, I might have thought it was too small a space. As it was I just squeezed the car into the space by parking it up on the rim of another big car, and as the car was tilted really high, on top of, what I think was, a Bentley, I realised I couldn’t leave it like that. But no matter what I did, grinding the gears and what have you, I couldn’t get it back off the rim, it was just scraping along the side. I was there for ages, but then the blokes on the building site opposite came over and lifted my car off the Bentley and said that that it was the site boss’s car and he might not have been impressed with my parking. Luckily, there was no harm done and we laughed and laughed as they said that I was the luckiest person ever as neither of the cars had a scratch on them.

I don’t think I have really learnt my lesson, as I still squeeze my car into tiny spaces. Recently, I was parking in my street when an auld gadgie came over and told me that I had balls for parking in such a small space. And, I would know, he said and went on to explain that he had been a long distance lorry driver and in the army, and had driven many types of vehicles but he had in all his years never seen driving like mine. I may not be one of the lads but I have balls people, balls.

He might have changed his mind if he’d seen me the day I was driving round ICI whilst lying down. Such a bad idea, but the speed limit was low so it was ok. Eventually I picked up another student, who was shadowing me this time as I was soon to return back to my degree and he was taking over my job, and it was only after a while, he asked me why I was driving looking like a woman of ill repute. I explained that I couldn’t shift the seat up and it was the only way to reach the pedals. Between us we managed to move the an inch or two until I gave up and let him drive as he had longer legs and I was the one who got sit in the passenger seat and say ridiculous things.

Though the one time I did let a colleague drive the van it was a terrible idea. We had been monitoring the Pont sur la Versoix outside of Geneva airport. She was collecting data. I was shadowing so that I could write nice software to support my colleagues and demonstrate the thesis of my thesis. And, then on our way back, I said: Turn right here (actually I said: Tourne a droit ici) and dippy chick that she was, she drove straight into the wall (Me: Frein, frein, frein) and then turned into a nervous wreck so I had to deal with the police and then drive the bloody wrecked car back to the lab. Honestly. She was so bad at driving.

Another time, against my better judgement, we let her drive again and she ploughed into a Swiss-German couple when we were on our way to Lugano to see how the fibre optic cabling we used to monitor bridges was made. To be fair it was a bit of a windy Alpine road going up the hill. The Swiss-German couple didn’t think so, they’d driven on those roads for 30 years without having dippy chicks drive into them. Luckily, I was in the back and one of the two guys we were travelling with was Swiss-German so he sorted out the mess. That night we went to a nightclub called Desperados and went a bit bonkers, glad to still be all in one piece and with jobs after damaging yet another car.

I think that is why I liked the Zurich architects project I worked on. I got the train there and back nice and had breakfast on the way there in the lovely restaurant car and then a quatre heures apero on the way back. Sometimes I’d leap off the train at Berne and meet a friend for dinner before catching the last train back to Lausanne.

The project was again a constraints solver but this time using case-based reasoning to design apartment layout. And, every week I used to go to Zurich and talk to the architects there, and shadow them sometimes when they went round offices or on building sites. They designed very carefully following the building regulations hence the idea to use a constraint solver, and endless fascinating conversations about what is easy and hard to model in a computer. I spent many a happy hour up there listening to my main contact, a lovely woman with a passion for design, who said at the end of our time together, that she thought of me more as a friend than a shadow. It was completely mutual. I loved her. She was inspirational.

Not everyone felt the love though, the day I told everyone at ICI in the main office that I had been diagnosed with low blood pressure, my boss had a very unlikely outburst and said: Low blood pressure. That’s because you go around raising everyone elses’s. I thought up until that point that I blended in. But apparently not, I was told by another colleague when they were checking if a job had been done that the answer on the phone came, Oh yes that woman in the checked trousers sorted it. Imagine a woman in (checked – what can I say? It was the ’90s) trousers coming round fixing things. Though, I’d learnt my lesson, I wore trousers now, I was sick of showing my knickers after getting stuck on a pipe somewhere on site.

My ICI boss said to me on my leaving review that when they had been choosing where to put that year’s students, everyone else slotted into a role somewhere apart from me. I didn’t fit anywhere. But honestly, why would anyone slot anywhere? It’s a peculiar idea, which is why shadowing is so important. Everyone is different, and unique, and people carry out their jobs in their own ways, so why wouldn’t we all take time out to get to know people instead of forcing them to work in a certain way.

Not everyone agrees though, as my PhD supervisor said one time: I hate her, she comes in here with her own ideas and thoughts. I was a bit baffled as I thought that was the point of research, but you know, we are all different, and it seems I baffled him as much as he did me. Once, he asked me, as I was shaking a printer cartridge over my head and I may have gotten a teensy bit of ink on his face as he came back from the bin over which he’d been carefully shaking the other cartridges: How have you gotten through life like this? I honestly wonder how you are still alive.

Freewheeling, baby, that’s how, I didn’t say that to him, as he was already far too red in the face for any more of my unique insights that day.

See, I listen very carefully. I hear you, I see you. I know everything about you, and let me tell you, you are important and unique and contribute to this world, and it’s not just part of my job to tell you that. It’s who I am. Now go on, keep making lovely things and if I can help with some software, or to shake things up a bit, invite me round, but let me just grab my sleeping mask as I may be staying a while.

[ part 6 ]