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 ]