1980s: Computers from an early age
My dad and his brother were into computers so I got into them that way. I remember programming a Video Genie, a BBC Micro, a ZX80, and a ZX-Spectrum (how geeky), although it wasn’t until I left university that I took it seriously as a career.
1989–1994: Student days
I studied Engineering Science as my first degree. As part of my fourth year group project, someone was needed to develop software to aid hull design of ships: I volunteered. This was my first real programming experience, and led me onto an MSc in Information Systems at Liverpool University.
1994: First proper job
I had two degrees from good universities, but no relevant work experience. I contacted several small software houses, including Performance Software (PS). I started out there as junior developer writing code in C and FORTRAN, but was also involved in support and sales force training. Unfortunately, the company ceased trading after 12 months.
1995: Stop gap
Having left PS without a job, I worked as a typist at National and Provincial (N&P) Building Society in Bradford. Writing code improves your typing skills no end. Whilst here I also spent time helping people fix problems with their computers.
I was spotted by the N&P systems support group, when a role in support came up I applied and it was offered to me. Working in support, I built up a good range of PC and server support skills, but also taught myself Visual Basic and MS Access. N&P merged with Abbey National and new opportunities opened up as Abbey’s general insurance workflow systems teams were relocated from. There were vacancies for software developers – I applied and was taken on.
1996: The Abbey habit
At Abbey National I trained in the development and support of imaging and workflow systems (FileNet and Staffware). I also started to get involved in the full software project lifecycle – from requirements gathering through to implementation and support.
In the workflow systems team there was a contractor from Olivetti – we became friends, and she suggested I contact her manager about joining their consultancy team. I did, went for an interview, and was offered a job.
Olivetti (as was) has gone through several mergers and name changes – Olivetti, Olsy, Wang, Wang Global, and, today, Getronics UK. I worked on over ten projects (mainly FileNet Imaging and Workflow systems) in six years – the variety of work and challenges involved in consultancy was great – being able to work on all phases of software project lifecycles was too.
I was meeting and working with new people all the time – colleagues, existing customers and new clients – it was a very sociable job. My work included pre-sales development, project management, tendering for bids, business analysis, systems analysis, software development, testing and support.
I was stretched and challenged on most projects and developed new skills moving from thick to thin client systems. One down side was that as consultants, we often had to spend long periods away from home working on customer sites. For me that included Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Southend. Ironically, the next career move resulted in me being further away from home than I ever imagined…
Sharing Skills, Changing Lives
When I first left university I enquired about VSO – Voluntary Services Overseas – however, at the time I had no real skills to offer. Ten years on, I had the IT skills and life circumstances to be able to go for it. I did and was offered a number of IT placements in The Gambia, Ghana, Malawi, and Nepal. The Nepal placement seemed just right. My placement was initially for one year, but I ended up staying for two, working primarily with three Dalit (the so called ‘untouchables’ in the Hindu caste system) welfare organisations:
- NNDSWO: Nepal National Dalit Social Welfare Organisation
- FEDO: Feminist Dalit Organisation
- DWO: Dalit Welfare Organisation.
These organisations are funded by a variety of international donors. Their central offices have networked computers with Windows XP and Microsoft (MS) Office software, and computers are key to much of their work. Additionally, DWO had a radio and TV studio with all the associated recording and editing facilities to produce their weekly news and interview programmes.
While donors have provided computers and equipment they do not often provide the documentation, training, advice, and guidance on how to best use it. This is where the VSO IT team fits in, using IT to improve their ability to run projects and their organisations – ‘capacity building’.
We developed HR databases, internal and external websites, software to store and report on survey results and an online Dalit recruitment database. I also gave training on computer basics, Windows, computer troubleshooting, IT audits and keeping fault logs, backup, anti-virus, document management, networking, internet, email, MS Office suite and PageMaker. I also spent a fair amount of time troubleshooting and fault fixing.
The work was not without challenges, as none of my organisations had a dedicated IT officer. Instead they may also be the finance officer, the HR officer or the secretary, and making time for IT in their already busy workday can be a struggle. On top of that there were frequent computer failures with the electricity problems due to the dust, damp, heat and cold. A backup plan and a good dose of patience went a long way!
The here and now
My time working in Nepal was not all smooth sailing, due to the Maoist insurgency, security, politics, caste and culture issues, health and language, but it was incredibly rewarding in so many ways. The Nepalese people, their rich culture and beautiful country, and the whole volunteer network combined to create an unforgettable experience.
When I returned to the UK, I was unsure of what challenge would await me. My new role as a business analyst and technical consultant, back at Getronics, has been an ideal step back into working life in the UK.