Falling into IT

In 2018, the Cambridge Centre for Computing History invited women in IT to write about their journey into the profession. This was for the Women in Computing 2018: Her Story Festival. This is my submission. I wasn’t sure what they were after, which is why the article is lengthy. I believed they would choose a section for their exhibition. In the end, the full article appeared in the accompanying book, and an extract was posted on one of the display boards.

I fell on my career in IT quite by accident.

My original plan was to become a teacher. However, there was lack of support from my school in Sussex, and I lost my confidence. The female careers tutor suggested I “work in Gamely’s (toy shop) as they deal with children”. Disheartened, I decided to aim for a Nursery Nurse placement, but it was a competitive course and I didn’t get in.

Undeterred, I applied and joined a YTS (Youth Training Scheme) to get experience, whilst I waited for the next round of Nursery Nurse applications. I felt this would give me a better chance of getting on the course.

In contrast, there was a lot of support at the primary school, where the scheme placed me. With one day release at college, I worked the remaining days across four classrooms, as a Teacher Assistant. The teachers (all female) told me I should aim higher, as I clearly had an aptitude for teaching. The female headteacher encouraged me further, telling me to go get my A Levels and apply for university – something I had begun to consider was out of my reach.

I got my A Level grades, and in 1989, I enrolled at Derby College of Higher Education (now Derby University) in a Nursery/Primary teacher training course. Ironically, the same career’s tutor was assigned to help me find a University. I declined her help. I didn’t feel she had my best interests at heart!

Two years into the course, the National Curriculum had become embedded in the classroom and I no longer found teaching fun. Too many forms and too much emphasis on meeting curriculum targets than educating children saw my interest, and subsequently my grades, start to fall.

I was told I would make a very good special needs teacher (and as it turns out she wasn’t wrong), but this required two more years in the course I disliked, plus a further year of specialist training. Instead, I swapped to a general humanities degree course and came out with a respectable 2:1 grade.

But I had no direction for my future.

Some fun with fundraising

A chance comment from a colleague, and an evening fundraising for a local special needs school planted the idea of fundraising as a career. This led me to a three-month contract in Cambridge as part-time fundraiser for East Anglian Autistic Support Trust (EAST); a small charity working to secure £1 million to provide provision for young adults in Cambridgeshire.

Two and a half very successful years later, the funds had been secured, the building identified and Juniper House, a home for young adults with autism, opened in Stretham, Cambridgeshire. The management of the building was subsequently handed to the National Autistic Society, so my role, which had extended many times since its initial three-month contract, was no longer required.

So, I was on the lookout for a new position.

IT’s for me

I enjoyed the fundraising, but I particularly enjoyed the IT element of the role – creating posters, working on databases, fixing minor IT issues when they arose.

Other than the IT elements of my role at EAST, where I had been using an Amstrad, my IT experience thus far had been to write my University dissertations on a BBC Micro. I used it to write and then stitch the files together to print out an essay. My classmates were using new Apple Mac computers in the classroom. But my BBC computer, which my Dad had bought me, enabled me to work at home, into the small hours of the night. I, therefore, never investigated the Apple Mac until much later in my career.

By now though, this was 1996, when the use of word processors and databases were becoming more of an office requirement. It was more common to find IBM computers running Windows 3.1 – though Windows 95 had just been released. This presented a bonus for me. A GUI front-end meant investigating computers, when they went wrong, was easier than understanding command-line DOS language.

So, with this limited knowledge, I applied for a role at Meldreth Manor School (MMS) as an IT Support Worker. MMS is a Cambridgeshire residential school for children with cerebral palsy, run by Scope.

The two other candidates for the job were quite obviously very IT savvy. But I secured the role because I had a knowledge of special needs, thanks to my support of families with autism – part of my role at EAST. Working with profoundly disabled students is not for everyone, and the interview panel felt I would have the empathy to support the student, as well as the knowledge to ensure the IT worked as required in the classroom.

At MMS, new Windows 95 machines had just been purchased, and my boss had little knowledge of this. His forte were the Acorn computers. So, like my Boss, I had to learn Windows 95 quickly, whilst gaining an understanding of the Acorn systems.

The students at MMS were profoundly disabled. To access the computers, the students used all sorts of adaptive technology, usually in the form of switches connected to their wheelchairs. For more able students, they used devices which would speak when they pressed buttons on a specially developed keypad. I found this adaptive technology fascinating.

I soon realised that enabling people, removing the struggle, was my forte as an IT expert.

As part of my time at MMS, I was granted funds to attend a university course on IT. A new Masters Conversion course in Computer Science had just been introduced at Anglia Polytechnic University (now Anglia Ruskin) and I was told this was better than the BTEC course I had previously identified. So I enrolled. Ready for the irony? I had taken Computer Science at A level but had dropped it as it was too difficult!

But I persevered with the course and I am very proud to have two degrees under my belt. One Humanities and one Science – a rarity, I’m told.

Striking a deal

The Masters course was not easy. Though I did excel at Project Management (spot the ex-teacher trainee!) and User/Human interaction, I required a lot of support from friends who understood programming far better than I.

Part way through the course, I also realised I was at a great disadvantage as there was no network at MMS. So, I applied for a role at Long Road 6th Form College (LRSFC). At my interview I struck a deal. “You teach me about networks,” I said, “and I’ll help your IT department get to grips with the Disability Discrimination Act (DDR)” that had come into effect the year before.

I got the job and over the next seven years, I progressed from an IT Technician to a Senior Technician (Software Support) to Software Specialist and Assistive Technology Technician. My role extended the experience I had received at MMS. Now I was to assess, investigate and install the specialist software and adaptive technology required for any student or tutor in the college who had access difficulties.

One of my greatest success stories, however, required nothing more than a mouse and a couple of games. I was asked to train a senior tutor to use their monitor for more than just a place to host Post-It notes!

A disgruntled student complained that she had seen the tutor playing games. (Games were not allowed on the college computers). I explained that on this occasion the games were educational. The tutor was using the games as a teaching tool to control their mouse. Solitaire – left mouse control. Minesweeper – left and right mouse control. Post-It notes disappeared replaced by real digital Word documents.

Not my business

I had many people pushing me to go into the corporate sector, as IT commands more money there. So from LRSFC, I branched out into a few contract roles, where I provided pure IT support and administration in the business world. This included time as a Technical Editor and Technical Author for Convergys and GE (documentation is another talent I have over most of my male contemporaries who hate writing up anything).

Whilst this saw my wages double, as a full-time job, it didn’t feed my soul.

But as I was no longer in IT Support, it did give me great insight into the frustrations both I and my colleagues experienced from having their IT supported by call centres in India. The companies had out-sourced, as it was cheaper than having in-house IT. But in my view, there is no replacement for face-to-face support.

I soon realised that money wasn’t everything, and a redundancy package enabled me to move back to both a job and industry I loved.

Back to Uni

Six years after leaving education, I secured work one-day-a-week at the University of Cambridge’s Sedgwick Museum. From there, I built up part-time hours working at the Scott Polar Museum, and at Earth Sciences (which houses the Sedgwick Museum).

Again, the roles I secured were a direct result of my ability to provide the kind of support that gives users the confidence to explore IT (and my ability to smooze the departmental Professors!)

My role was essentially working on my own, so I needed to do a lot of research to brush up my rusty IT support skills. Thank God for the invention of Google!

As I was part-time, I built wiki sites, which I encouraged my users to try when I was not at work. Gradually, they began to gain confidence to look up answers on the wiki before submitting tickets. The deal being, it didn’t matter if they got it wrong. At least they tried. They couldn’t really break anything anyway, so long as they saved to a network. The worst we had to do was rebuild a machine. Rarely needed, but I always had a couple of hot swaps on hand for such occasions.

I now work for the Institute Support Service at the University. They provide IT professionals to departments in the university. This might be to provide:

  • support to small departments who have little need for a full time technician
  • specialist support for research groups
  • cover for holiday or illness

The team has a wide range of skills. But in general, all team members have one quality in common. An empathy with people. And the team is run by a woman.

At my interview, it was made clear that the type of person they were seeking was someone who saw the user as a person, and not just the “user error” cause of the problem.

I feel there is a greater respect for this IT team. I see less fear on the faces of those who visit our offices than I did at previous establishments. They feel they will be welcomed with a smile not a scowl.

If you could do this, I’d be out of a job!

Many of my male counterparts in the past have been brilliant IT professionals. They can build networks from scratch, build large complicated databases, ensure secure, robust data storage systems. But those same people struggle when it comes to supporting the users. Perhaps their logical brains just don’t understand why a person doesn’t understand IT in the same way as them.

But nearly daily, I have people coming to me apologising for asking for my help and for not knowing how to do something IT related. I believe they are apologising because a previous IT professional has made them feel ridiculous that they didn’t know how to work IT.

I now have a stock response: “Don’t apologise. If you could do this, I would be out of a job!”

“I never thought of it that way!” they say. The user relaxes, and we have developed a bond.

Never work a day in your life

I believe it was Mark Twain who said, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” And for me, 6.30 am wakeup alarms notwithstanding, I know I am blessed that for me, this is true.

I feel very privileged to have found a career which I love.

I have had colleagues tell me that they couldn’t do what I do – which I always find interesting coming from someone who can build cluster networks with their eyes shut.

Whilst the pay may not be as great as some of my more technical colleagues, I have learned that teaching people IT, and seeing them influence technology to do their bidding, really gives me pleasure.

Perhaps I’m not all that far away from my teaching roots after all!

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