13: Getting With the Program

Back in Croydon after my Inter Rail adventure I felt like my wings had been clipped, as I settled down to a steady job. I had previously applied for a couple of secretarial jobs using languages – but I had been turned down, because they said I was too highly qualified.

In that case, I was also too highly qualified for the job with the firm of Quantity Surveyors – but I stayed with them for two and a half years. It was a friendly environment, and as long as the work got done, the Director was relaxed about punctuality – my Achilles heel, and his too. I enjoyed working there – and it gave me breathing space, while I kept my eyes open for something more interesting.

Three-quarters of the staff were Quantity Surveyors – all of them men. I felt I had more in common with them than with the secretaries, because we shared a wider variety of interests – we played squash together each week, and in the summer months I kept score at the firm’s cricket matches. I was even invited to participate in one match, when they were short of a fielder.

The Director and his team appreciated me editing their documents, rather than just typing them – they agreed it was better to send out something that was well-written rather than full of errors. There was just one exception: a long-serving surveyor who crossed out my corrections and inserted his original text, in red pen, for re-typing. I soon realised it was pointless arguing with him, so I left him to stew in his own juice.

Occasionally, the Director gave me something more challenging to do – such as phoning contractors, to invite them to tender for the demolition of a building. I had no idea what to say, but somehow I managed to bluff my way through. And it made an interesting change.

I considered becoming a Quantity Surveyor – but the Director said I would find it boring. Someone else suggested Building Surveying, which involved re-purposing old buildings. I applied and was accepted onto a four-year degree course, with one condition – I had to find a job as an apprentice Building Surveyor. I realised it was a non-starter, when I discovered that our own apprentices earned barely enough to cover my rent.

To expand my language skills while I was living in Croydon, I had signed up for a Russian evening class at an Adult Education centre. A year later, when I moved to a bedsit in Wimbledon, I started Japanese classes – where I became friends with a real Polynesian princess!

1984 – at the Alhambra Palace, Granada

In the summer, I visited my friend Mary in sweltering Granada, and we toured the region on local buses. With such high temperatures, I warned her that I might not make it out of the bus station before falling asleep – and I was true to my word. What a contrast, compared with my Inter Rail trip two winters before, when we nearly froze in the first snowfall for thirty years.

Later that year I joined a band, after responding to an advert in Melody Maker for a backing singer. I enjoyed performing again – but I left after our second gig, at the “Princess Louise” pub in Holborn, because it wasn’t really my kind of music.

1985 – singing backing vocals at a gig in the Princess Louise pub, Holborn, London

I had been feeling frustrated in my job for some time – but after two years as a secretary, I was offered a new role as Marketing Assistant, which I hoped would offer some more interesting opportunities. I persuaded the Director to let me publish an internal newsletter, because some employees had said they didn’t have a clear overview of the work the firm was doing.

I researched stories, took photographs and typed up the entire first issue – teaching myself how to use a colossal Word Processing machine in the process. The newsletter was such a success that the second issue was sent to a printer for a more professional finish.

1985 – the in-house newsletter I produced for the Quantity Surveyors

One of the articles in the second issue was my farewell to the firm, as I was moving on to pastures new.

* * *

My salary from my secretarial job barely covered my living expenses – especially since my move to Wimbledon – so I worked in a local music pub one night a week, to stretch my income a little. The pub was usually very busy from the get-go, but one night in particular started quietly.  

On the counter, there was a copy of the Evening Standard – a London tabloid. Although I don’t generally read newspapers, I picked it up for something to do. It was open at the classified adverts page, and I spotted a box advert for a training course in COBOL computer programming.

Despite having written a couple of programs at school and university, I had no idea what a computer programmer might do in a business setting. But I thought it could be an interesting career – so I applied for the course, attended an interview, and waited for news.

Back at work, the frustration mounted. I kept being asked to fill in for the secretaries when they were “too busy” to complete their own work. I suspected they were taking advantage of my good nature – so I confronted the Director, telling him that it felt as though I didn’t have a proper job of my own.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” the Director said.

The following morning, I handed in my resignation, even though I hadn’t yet heard back about the computer programming course. I was intelligent and talented – and in my view, my needs outweighed anyone else’s.

A letter confirming my acceptance onto the programming course arrived in the post a few days later, with the course starting immediately after my month’s notice.

* * *

The twelve week programming course was government-run, so I received a grant of £40 per week for the duration. Out of that I had to pay £30 per week for rent and £6 for my weekly train and tube ticket to the training centre in Mayfair. That left me with £4 per week for food and everything else.

To make ends meet, I continued to work in the music pub – and there I renewed my acquaintance with Paul, who I had met through mutual friends. His companionship was like a refreshing oasis after a dusty trek through the desert, and it proved to be the start of a long and happy marriage of kindred spirits.

For the final two weeks of the training course, I worked at a placement with a travel company in north London. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any permanent vacancies – but I was offered a job  by a software house, which had taken on one of the other trainees.

Rather than using “mainframe” computers, they used IBM PCs – similar to the desktop computers we use today, except they didn’t have a hard drive. Instead, we used separate floppy disks to store the programs and data, and kept swapping from one disk to the other as necessary. It’s hard to imagine how we managed – but then I remind myself that the first Moon landing, in 1969, used less computing power than today’s mobile phones.

The software house was based in Chertsey, which meant at least an hour’s commute each way. By that time, my car had packed up – so I either borrowed Paul’s car or caught the train. I might have tolerated the commute, if I had enjoyed the job – but I didn’t.

The company was full of new recruits – my manager only had eighteen months experience – and despite being a complete novice, I kept pointing out things that were missing from the project plan. The rest of the team didn’t start working seriously until 5pm – just as I was going home – and they stayed until 9pm, when they all went to the pub.

The final straw was the Christmas party at a local pub. After the meal was finished, the party games started – two people raced underneath the twelve foot long table on hands and knees, while colleagues drenched them with water from soda syphons. As an introvert, I loathe parties anyway – so I told them I felt unwell and rushed home.

I didn’t fit in at the software house, and the stress was making me ill. I knew I had to find another job, but I didn’t hold out much hope, because I had been working as a programmer for less than 6 months. But I desperately wanted to work closer to home and to gain more experience.

A couple of weeks later I was offered a job at a large pharmaceutical warehouse, around two miles from where we lived. The post was in a small team, which formed part of a well-established IT department – and the increase in salary put me back up to the income level of my secretarial job. I instantly felt at home, and I was grateful to be surrounded by professionals I could learn from.


2 thoughts on “13: Getting With the Program

  1. Hi Julia,

    I’m slowly reading your story and finding it fascinating and extremely readable. Thank you so much for sharing it. I’ve been trying to find novels to read without much success, but coming across your stories I’m finding I’m really enjoying them. So please keep it up!

    I may have asked you before, in which case I apologise, but may I post something about you in my blog, Creating My Odyssey? If not, that’s fine, but I’d love to talk about your stories.

    Jo, Hampshire UK


    1. Hi Jo – I’m so glad that you’re enjoying reading my stories! Thank you for asking if you can post something about me in your blog – I would be happy with that. Please let me know if you would like me to answer some interview-style questions – and please do send me a link to the post!


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