The accidental techie (7): Lost and found

 [ 1) the accidental techie2) the uninvited3) transference california4) flow5) shadowing6) going inside 7) lost and found]

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.

I was so frazzled after my PhD that I took a year off to go travelling. 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 just moved towns, 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 time off to give some lectures 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 that he was too intimidated to supervisor me or offer any advice. They had 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 and make me feel stressed about the time I was losing. 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. 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. This one I am creating right now, you’ll be glad to hear, is my best yet. Ha! I love it. HCI has helped me find my way back to myself every single time and I am ready once more to share what I know. Hello, World! Here I come.

The accidental techie (6): Going inside

my pad, av de france, Lausanne

 [ 1) the accidental techie, 2) the uninvited, 3) transference california, 4) flow, 5) shadowing, 6) going inside, 7) lost and found]

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.

The accidental techie (5): Shadowing

 [ 1) the accidental techie, 2) the uninvited, 3) transference california, 4) flow, 5) shadowing, 6) going inside 7) lost and found ]

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.

The accidental techie (4): Flow

Information flow diagram from serveit.com

  [ 1) the accidental techie, 2) the uninvited, 3) transference california, 4) flow, 5) shadowing 6) going inside 7) lost and found]

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

   [ 1) the accidental techie, 2) the uninvited, 3) transference california, 4) flow, 5) shadowing 6) going inside 7) lost and found ]

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 ]