The accidental techie (4): Flow

Information flow diagram from serveit.com

 [ part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 ]

I love systems analysis. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I love to analyse how to share information, how things link together, what people say and do, and why, how information and conversation flows. I also love the mystical aspects of being in flow, at one with the universe, the union of yoga, following your bliss, and all that jazz. It’s magic.

This morning, in Bikram, it was hot and sweaty, and I was in the flow, loving it. Then the teacher put on a soundtrack to celebrate Glastonbury and Simply Red came on and in that moment I was transported back to the time I was invited to a Simply Red concert in Paris when I was working as a support/systems analyst during my industrial placement at ICI, Runcorn.

There was a few of us from the degree course and whilst they all ended up at HQ in the lovely offices, I was the one who was given a pair of rubber shoes, a gasmask and, my office was a prefab outside the main office block of the Castner Kellner Chemical site which I shared with two older blokes and another industrial (male) student, my age, who was painfully shy but a really lovely person.

One of the older blokes hoarded all the equipment and wasn’t great at sharing anything. He did IT security, apparently, and communicated on a need-to-know basis, but was actually quite nice if you made an immense effort to get beyond his gruff manner.

The other guy, well, we just loved each other. He was basically sitting about the prefab waiting to retire. He was supposed to man the IT help desk, but used to chat on the phone for hours and invite all his pals into our prefab for coffee. If anyone including me had a problem, he would unplug the IT help desk phone so we could talk about it at length. They would take me with them to the pub at lunch time and after the time I mentioned my dad retired early from ICI after 33 years service, they would regularly gather round when they were feeling down and say: Tell us again, Ruth, about your dad, now tell everyone how old he was, he was 53, go on tell them, Ruth.

I gave them hope that they too could retire soon and not have to retrain and do IT when they were quite happy doing what they used to do and hadn’t asked to have IT foisted on them. It was kind of like having a load of uncles in the office who didn’t really understand what you did, or indeed what they did, but admired and nodded in encouragement as you went about your business. It’s unimaginable nowadays, but back then, big companies like ICI were your employer and they looked after you for life, and your family after your death, as long as you didn’t quit, you and yours would be looked after forever.

Getting paid was fantastic, I think I was on about £10k which made me feel like I was so rich, and being 20 years old with no courseworks, deadlines and loads of cash meant that basically, I used to go out every night with people from the course or my house. I shared a house with four girls and three other blokes, it was a massive place and really cool. I went with the flow.

One night, we were out at the Cavern Club and on the dance floor, I saw someone who had been in my big brother’s year at school, he was a really popular boy that everyone loved, even though my bro and him had left before I’d even gotten to secondary school. I hadn’t seen him for years and here he was 200 miles away from our home town but he recognised me, all grown up as he later put it. We got chatting and all of the rest it. He worked as a roadie, and was on tour with Simply Red.

We kept in touch, he would ring and write to me and a few weeks later, I went to work and my men were there drinking coffee, and I told them that I was off to Paris, to watch Simply Red in concert with roadie man. I remember them not saying much at all, just the odd raised eyebrow.

Then a first class aeroplane ticket to Paris arrived in the post and for the first time, I realised what the raised eyebrow was all about. I mean, roadie man was a very nice man, but I barely knew him and the last time I had had a conversation with him before this time I had been 11 years old with a crush. I wandered into work that day and me auld fellas were there drinking coffee and I said that I wasn’t going to go to Paris. Why not, Ruth? I said that I didn’t know this bloke and what did it mean to get a ticket to Paris? Where was I supposed to be sleeping? I couldn’t go.

Now I am older, getting closer to the ages of my auld fellas, I too would unplug the IT phone and sit down but my advice to younger me would be to ask him, ask roadie man: What’s the deal with this ticket? What are you expecting to happen? As, it was, me auld fellas didn’t say that, they just slurped on their coffee and said: You are a nice girl, Ruth, a good girl.

Even at that time, it infuriated me, the patriarchal bollocks. Say, I had gone, shagged him, half of Simply Red, and all of the roadies, I would still be a nice girl, a good girl, one with healthy appetites and a lust for life. If the roles had been reversed, and they were all female and I was male, it would not have been mentioned, and there it is, the things not said, the things assumed, the patterns which are culturally inherent in our world, which I guess is why I like computing, you cannot have an ambiguous conversation with a computer. It can only do what I have asked it to do, and if I have coded it up then I know exactly what assumptions it is making, which I would have documented for everyone to see, and if they were old-fashioned assumptions we could test them and change them for the better.

Roadie man rang me up two days before I was due to go on the phone which was on the wall in the hallway in the big house in which I lived. Standing in the hallway with everyone listening in, I said I couldn’t go. I couldn’t even say why, and he didn’t try to help me out. He was cross, went on about the price of the ticket and hung up. I never heard from him ever again.

I didn’t have the skills to talk about it and neither did he which in and of itself isn’t terrible. We all like a bit of the unknown, the frisson of anything could happen, the anticipation and the things left unsaid because we feel a connection, it makes us feel alive, it makes us feel sexy. But then, I guess I didn’t really want to go and I didn’t really feel that magic in this situation. I didn’t feel the flow. Instead I felt completely out of my depth. I had been so distracted by the idea of going to Paris that I hadn’t really thought through why and how it was going to work. Had I bought my own ticket and booked my own hotel room, it would have been very different, I would have had an internal locus of control as psychologists and us HCI peeps call it.

And, I can’t help but feel this is the way a lot of people use technology nowadays, people put systems in place to make things easier and save money apparently. But, they haven’t had a conversation about what is suitable for the people these systems are supposed to be supporting. No one has designed the information flow. There is no flow and the users don’t feel like they have any control over anything. Like me auld fellas, it’s just been foisted on them, and the only thing they can do is unplug, or not turn up, I am sorry, I just can’t come to Paris.

If an analyst sits down to analyse flow, the analyst will ask what information needs to go where and sometimes, you don’t need a system, you just need to work on clearer communication skills. You may have the technology to contact me all day long but if your message is not clear, and if it doesn’t make my life easier nor does it make you or me feel better then there is absolutely no point getting in touch. None whatsoever. If you are contacting me to tell me half the facts, it is going to make me feel uneasy and I will not comply. So please, get your flow right. Get into flow.

My undergraduate degree was really really fabulous and way better than a lot of degree courses I have since taught on. It was a polytechnic degree and it was thorough. I was taught super great programming and I still manage to amaze my husband with my ideas for problem solving when we talk about software, and he codes all day long. I was grilled in software design, software reuse, legacy systems, good information flow, data in and data out – if you put garbage in garbage will come out. I was taught how and when to use the right piece of kit, and even how to put it together. How to upgrade the motherboard, add in an extra hard disk or more memory. Really I was taught how to make it flow.

After I went back to finish my degree, my office mate retired, and he invited me to his leaving do. The train was late so I guess he thought I wasn’t coming, so was thrilled when I came through the door. All the auld fellas were there and we had a good catchup and then partway through the evening, my office mate said to me that he’d never had a daughter but if he had had one, he would have wanted her to be me. Best message ever.

After his do, we went for a curry, and all the auld fellas wanted us to do a runner, to relive their youth, thankfully we didn’t. I missed the train back to Liverpool, so me pal said: Come stay with us, if you don’t trust us Ruth, you’ll never trust a man in your life, but I did trust them, I knew them all, well, we’d spent a whole year in a prefab together. So, we all went back to someone’s house, stayed up half the night drinking gin and listening to Johnny Mathis. Good times.

Years later, thinking about that night still makes me laugh and lifts my heart. That’s what life is all about, connecting with good people and having good times. When you are in the flow there’s nothing better. Technology is supposed to make that flow easier. It is supposed to be an improvement, so if it isn’t, if it’s denting your ‘do, then analyst that I am, I recommend that you unplug the phone, invite your mates round to your prefab, and tell stories to pick everyone up. The IT can wait. Meanwhile, wake up to what’s important, smell the coffee and enjoy the flow.

[ part 5 ]

The accidental techie (3): Transference California

Transfer effects, The Design of Everyday Things

 [ part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 ]

In the ’90s I went to my first international conference to present some research. It was very exciting. I stayed in a hotel near Stanford University and got to walk about across the huge campus everyday.

At the drinkies on the first night, I ended up at the wrong ones. I seemed to be at a 20-year reunion which took me a while to realise as I was there thinking: I don’t remember all these people from today. They were very nice about it and we laughed as I squeezed through the hedge to the AI crowd. It turned out that my really nice wine glass stood out amongst everyone else’s plastic cups and it made for a nice ice-breaker.

At the drinks, I met two PhD students from Cambridge University who had planned a road trip when the conference was over and asked what I was going to do. Of course, I hadn’t planned anything, but I didn’t have to fly back out from L.A. for another seven days. So, they invited me to go along with them which I did and had a fabulous time. We saw everything San Francisco, Yosemite, Berkeley, Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon, Death Valley. California, baby! It was great fun and I was sad to say goodbye when they dropped me off at the airport.

I can’t really imagine doing that now. I have been a married sensible woman and mother for so long that the idea of jumping into the back of a car to drive all round California with two men I’ve just met is just so alien to me now, set as I am in my small life in it’s routine (yawn), that I can hardly remember how it seemed so easy and so natural. I wonder what happened to them, did they finish their PhDs? Did they get jobs? Stay in academia? I can’t even remember their surnames to google them. Although, I did have a bit of a crush on one of them (the nice one), I’ll be honest I used to google – well search online, was it Yahoo? – for him a bit afterwards.

But, on the last day of the conference when they offered to take me with them, I remember getting my things together whilst feeling really stressed. What if they went without me? What if they changed their minds? What if they thought it was a terrible idea?

As it was they turned up early and helped negotiate my hotel bill, I remember the louder one of them saying: Her going I am going to charge you an extra day for no reason, is that ok? is like: I am going to punch in the face, is that ok? And I was so grateful for his loudness. He told her that no she couldn’t charge me for an extra day for no reason, and no, it was not ok.

Several days later as we were standing in Death Valley, he wanted us to run about on the sandy earth barefoot to see how it felt. I didn’t want to, but he set up a series of stepping stones, like a towel and a book and stuff, and he was like: Go on try. And, I again I didn’t really want to but since he and his mate had already, I did too. I was part way through when he removed everything and took my shoes so that I had no choice but to run all the way back to the car over the boiling hot sand, but when I got there, he drove off, and there I was left in the middle of Death Valley. It felt like an eternity and I had that ground falling away feeling and a sickness in my stomach. They drove back round and were laughing. I got into the car and asked for my shoes, I was too choked up to speak.

I grew up right at the foot of the Cleveland Hills, you could see them from my bedroom, not too far from the part known as California as the local Iron Ore Rush was a bit like the Californian Gold Rush, so the story goes. On Sundays, my dad would tell everyone to get ready for a walk up the hills. But so many times, my brothers and my dad would set off without me. I would come downstairs all ready and excited to go and they would have already gone leaving me with that ground falling away and sick feeling. My mum would say: Oh but they looked everywhere for you. Yeah, like there was anywhere to hide in the two-up two-down on the council estate we all called Cardboard City.

Years later they told me that they would say: Shhh let’s sneak off before Ruth gets downstairs, and when I said that it was cruel, my dad said: Oh but you were such a whinger, and he didn’t want to have to carry me home when I got tired. I remember everyone laughing and making it clear in no uncertain terms that my feelings and opinions didn’t matter, I was to shut up and stop crying. In fact my mother’s favourite line was: You’ll never get through life if you cry like that, Ruth.

I cannot think who I am more disappointed in: My mum for going along with it, or my dad for being so feeble as to not hold an honest conversation with his only daughter. I am amazed I trust anyone at all, or perhaps that it’s, perhaps I don’t trust anyone, really, whether I’ve known you all my life or for the last five minutes, you may still lie to me and sneak off, or pretend to leave me stranded in a place where I would die, as a joke, how funny, and then laugh at my tears.

Psychologists call it transference when you transfer a past experience to a present one. I am sitting here all a bit trembly as I think about it, about how abandoned I felt at the bottom of Death Valley, which was really just a revisiting of being left behind whilst everyone was up the hills. And, I am so sorry for baby Ruth and how her parents thought it was a good idea to make the whole family complicit in a lie whilst encouraging their baby girl to believe that it was her own fault and that she just wasn’t enough. Wow!

Not long after I started my first lecturing position, the only other woman in the department came in and asked me if she could lecture my course instead of me: But what am I supposed to do and why was I hired if you can teach my courses? It baffles me even now. She certainly didn’t go around asking the men of the department whether she could do their jobs for them. She probably thought she couldn’t, but that she could do mine, ‘cos how hard could it be, right? I remember her calling meetings and forgetting to invite me, and criticising me for the most random of things. I don’t even remember asking her why she was so focused on me? I was just so used to that feeling of being uncertain and wrong footed around other women, that it felt familiar. Like the men go about the world doing things and don’t have to explain anything to me, I don’t count, I am uninvited, and the women are in their own sub-culture not quite telling the truth, fighting over a limited amount of resources, the crumbs left over from the men, with the unsaid message: This is the way it is. I think again, my transference.

In my 2nd year undergraduate, I shared a house with three girls. One night, we went to the pub in the car. On the way home, they all went out to get the car whilst I was still in the pub looking for my umbrella. Of course, when I went to outside to get into the car, yep, you’ve guessed it, they’d left without me. That wasn’t the first time I felt wrong-footed when I lived with them but it was the last.

I moved out shortly afterwards, and another female asked me if I would get a place with her. I said that I would, glad that I had a plan. We went home for the holidays and she wrote to me several times to remind me of the plan. When I went back to Liverpool, she was unreachable. I learnt a couple of days later that she had moved into my old room. Dearie me. What is wrong with an honest conversation? The friend who was driving the car never forgave me for moving out, and told me when she bumped into me not long after that I would never have any friends, that I would be lonely and alone: You know that’s your worst fear. I didn’t know that it was my worst fear, and sitting here today, I am wondering how much did I contribute to these upsets with my transference. Ssssh let’s sneak off before Ruth gets here.

Interestingly, the woman who wanted my job wrote to me some years later to apologise for her behaviour, and wanted to meet for lunch. And, then not long after that another woman with whom I had done some consultancy wrote a similar email, I wasn’t very nice to you, she wrote, Let’s meet for lunch. I hadn’t really gotten that upset about that one, I just thought she was a bit weird, a bit frosty. I guess I was so used to that funny feeling of shifting sands around women, who are not telling you the truth but you can’t quite put your finger on it. It’s such a familiar feeling, that I guess it feels like home. My auntie who died recently, used to regularly phone me up and tell me that my mother didn’t like me, which I think she thought would help me.

I still get transference, why wouldn’t I? I am trying these days to be, as they say, the sacred witness to myself. I take a breath to get beyond that sinking feeling and ask for clarification. If someone has done me wrong or been unprofessional and it has a negative impact on me, I will speak up. Often I do it as an experiment because I am still grappling with that idiotic voice inside myself which tells me that my feelings and opinions don’t matter, and I am not enough. And, also I have a very firm rule: If someone laughs when I cry then they are not very nice. No flex on that one.

I wonder then, if that is why I went into tech. Is that why I find technology so comforting? You see, when I am sitting in front of a computer, it doesn’t press all my buttons, and when I press its buttons, even the wrong ones, it really doesn’t mind, we can reboot and start again, it doesn’t make me wrong about who I am, it doesn’t want my stuff, or my job, or my boyfriend, it doesn’t criticise me, or tell me not to be me, it doesn’t sneak off when I leave the room, and it definitely doesn’t lie to me.

Oh my, how I love computers.

[ part 4 ]

The accidental techie (2) : The uninvited

Rider Waite Tarot Ten of Swords

 [ part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 ]

The reason I wrote the last blog, aside from to entertain myself, was to ask: What makes a woman choose STEM?

I couldn’t answer this question even after reading the research, so I thought that I would start with me. After all, I am a woman, I didn’t want to go into tech, but have had a lovely time.

I already envisaged doing an overview about my undergraduate degree and the lovely men with whom I studied. In fact two of those men read the first blog soon after I pressed publish, shared it and then shared their experiences of Liverpool. I was joyful and glad they had reached out and joyful that I knew these friends, my male friends. I have always thought that I was an exception to the conclusions I came to during my Women series blogs. Lucky me!

So imagine my surprise on Saturday night when another man who was, at times during our four years in Liverpool, my best friend, posted a picture of these lovely male friends of mine on Facebook, out in the pub in Liverpool, enjoying a reunion to which I hadn’t known anything about. I was the uninvited.

I studied the photograph to see that there he was with eleven other men including the two men who had been so keen to let me know how they felt about my blog, but hadn’t been keen at all to tell me how they were all meeting up in two days time at a reunion for my course. That’s the kicker – they called it a reunion – the thoughtless, thoughtless men. And, then there was the bloke that everyone thinks is a dickhead, even he got an invite!

Today, I got an message from another man on the picture, trying to make light of it: It was just an oversight, we feel collectively guilty, you are a main member of the group, next time, smiley emoji, jokey-joke, I’m a great guy who treats everyone equally, don’t turn it into a feminist issue, thus really adding insult to injury.

It was the word collective which really triggered me. I have blogged about male group think in the workplace – women are not even seen, let alone considered – and silly woman I am, I blogged all that, all the while thinking how lucky I was to have a nice group of male colleagues with whom I studied and who were respectful and did see me. Little did I know, I was the uninvited, and not only that, I was then subjected to a #mansplaining message for me to not take on so, not overreact, don’t be that hysterical woman. Oh God, Ruth’s moaning again.

My best friend got it, or at least did a good impression of someone who got it last night, before the Ruth’s upset message he circulated which encouraged the other bloke to patronise me. He agreed that they are all thoughtless, thoughtless men, because a similar thing had happened to his son a couple of months ago and he is now one angry dad. I am sorry about his son too because a similar thing is happening to my youngest too at school.

She has a group of boys as friends who already practice social exclusion based on gender. Her best friend won’t invite her round on a playdate because he is worried that the other boys will make fun at him. I only got this information because I asked the boy’s mother directly and now I am angry too.

This mother hasn’t got the gumption to step in and parent her boy into being a respectful empathetic human being. Instead she and all the other boys’ parents are teaching them that it is fine to exclude girls, hurt their feelings and behave however the hell they like, one of the little charmers is forever calling my girl stupid and dumb. She had her birthday recently and she didn’t want him there, and yet he still turned up but had the good sense to get back into his car and get driven home. I don’t know which of his parents thought that was a good idea, but it broke my heart to see him put in that position, although there was no way he was coming in.

The irony is that the mothers of these boys would all describe themselves as feminists. Three of them have told me stories on the playground about the way they have suffered because of male groupthink, being passed over for promotion, and ousted out of jobs without any discussion because the discussion took place amongst the men probably in the pub when the women were not invited.

They have let my daughter down in an enormous way and by not teaching their boys how to respect girls, they are letting their sons down in an enormous way too. I am so disappointed in them.

We all have to take a collective hand in order to stop propagating the patriarchal patterns of females being the uninvited. It seems to be that these mothers have not even made the connection between their jobs and their sons and that one day these boys will be men who will treat them with no respect too. Feminism starts at home.

I tell my little girl through her tears that there is nothing wrong with her, she didn’t do anything wrong, nor should she try harder. The wrong lies with these parents who are teaching their boys that it is fine to take no responsibility for the impact they have on anyone around. They are socialising their boys to disrespect their female friends. Shame on them.

And all I can say, uninvited woman that I am, is that if my daughter is consistently and systematically shown by these little boys that her feelings are not important, then she has to take herself elsewhere and entrust her feelings to friends who will show respect and consideration for them. Otherwise she will end up like me crushed by a picture on Facebook.

Like the beautiful TEN OF SWORDS above, I am face down in the mud, but I will recover, the sun is already rising, and I will get up, it’s just that when I do, I will be scarred forever by the thoughtless, thoughtless men I thought were my friends but in fact were not thinking of me, at all.

[ part 3 ]

The accidental techie

 [ part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 ]

In one of the first lectures I ever gave, I realised that I was actually cupping my left breast as I talked. Horrified, I had to nonchalantly put my hand down and act like someone who always fondles her breasts in public.

To be fair, I was explaining to 2nd year undergraduates how a breast cancer biopsy could be performed using a head-mounted display, augmented reality, baby, and since I was still new to lecturing and had an out-of-body experience every time I stood up in front of anyone, I could have been doing anything and not noticed. It was only when I got distracted by a couple of lads in the front row tittering away, as it were, that I realised what I was doing, and tried not to become consumed by my self-consciousness, I just had to press on and get to the end of that lecture.

I couldn’t even get irritated with them because as an undergraduate, me and a mate used to do impressions of one of our lecturers who would hold onto his pecs when considering the complexities of the formal languages: OBJ and Z. We would howl with laughter. Little did I know, that lo and behold, I would be there a few years later doing exactly the same thing.

Soon after Boobgate, I had a professor sit in one of my lectures to assess me as part of the teaching and learning course I was doing. He was astonished at the attendance I had. He had lectured the same group of students earlier in the term and was amazed that they were all still coming to mine. I didn’t like to say that they probably turned up to see what I would get up to next.

In the previous lecture, I had stepped backwards and cried out: Arrrgh, arrgh, arrgh, as I waved my arms around. For some reason, I fully expected to go crashing down off the stage. However, when I didn’t fall, I stopped flailing and turned to see what had happened. There was at least another foot of stage behind me. I smoothed my dress down and pressed on regardless as if to say: Well who doesn’t do a quick impression of someone falling off the stage before moving onto their next slide?

The professor gave me some really helpful feedback afterwards and asked during the lecture if I meant Gameboy when I said Playboy. I was explaining how to turn a Gameboy into an amateur head-mounted display. Gah, I do have a tendency when under stress, and particularly when trying to impress, to say the wrong word, especially if it’s a word I don’t use very often.

One time, I was at an alumni event in the House of Lords and was talking about traffic calming. Everyone was speechless until a lovely man stepped forward and said in his beautiful RP, I think the word you are looking for is boll-ard.

I’d been talking about road bollocks for at least 10 minutes.

I never set out to become a lecturer in computing. In fact I hadn’t set out to become anything, least of all in computing. Originally, I just wanted to go to university.

I came up with the idea to study English Literature after watching Educating Rita, (1983) but I didn’t get the grades I needed (three ‘A’s) and I didn’t have the money to get my ‘A’ Level History remarked, which everyone else did and is one of my few regrets, since everyone went up at least one grade. Nor, did I want to resit, I had been there, done that. I was keen to get on with my life but decided that I wanted to do something different as I was beginning to question how useful French, History and English Literature were. They couldn’t even get me on a course and I have a ‘B’ in English Literature. So, taking some random advice about applying to courses which had loads of space in the clearing list, I ended up on a computing degree at Liverpool Polytechnic.

My dad (who had left school at 16, my mum, 14) asked me the night before I was due to leave: Are you not worried about starting a degree in something you know nothing about? Me, with the breathtaking dazzling confidence of my 18 year-old self, said, Course not, how hard could it be? At which point, everyone reminded me of all the times I had said that when I hadn’t prepared for something and gone out and failed.

I spent my first night in temporary accommodation at the real university in a block which overlooked the street and indeed road sign of Strawberry Fields, which was painted on the wall, so it couldn’t get nicked. I think I must have gone down to dinner, I don’t really remember but I got talking to a load of part-time masters students somehow who were staying in the same halls and took me off to the pub. They were on a study-week as they were all fully grown up and working and so took the opportunity to give me lots of advice and beer whilst they reminisced about their time as students.

The next day, excited and fuzzy headed, I went off to the accommodation office, I thought they would give me keys instead they gave me a list of landlords and told me to get some 10p pieces. Charming.

It took a couple of days but I found a place and a friend. She was one cool chick with whom I kept crossing paths, so when she was in the phone box ahead of me, it felt like a sign. I waited for her to come out and introduced myself. We teamed up, found a place together, and became firm friends as we began our new lives.

Sometimes, I dream that I am back in Liverpool. I am always looking for a place to stay or searching for a friend. I welcome this recurring dream now, because it is a shift in my consciousness which signals to my heart that I will wake up to something new.

On that first morning it was to wonder why some Japanese tourists were taking pictures of a wall, but I took it to mean that there’s magic in the most unlikeliest of places and people, and proceeded through my day with that intention.

Sometimes I feel naive and silly to think the way I do. I feel like I’ve just been caught accidentally holding my breast in public and I will get distracted and won’t finish what I’ve started, but when I worry that I might fail I remember 18-year-old me shrugging and saying: Course not, how hard can it be?

And with a breathtaking dazzling confidence that I still dream about, I ask myself: Indeed, how hard can it be?

[ part 2 ]