The accidental techie (5): Shadowing

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

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.