14: Stretching My Wings

As a junior programmer, I was part of a small team that was responsible for writing programs for a community of small pharmacies. Whereas the majority of the department worked on the mainframe computer, we used PCs – which the mainframe programmers referred to as toys.

There was one other junior programmer in the team, JT, who was a similar age to me and even more adventurous. After a year, she took a job in the Canary Islands, and she now runs a business in a tropical paradise. We still keep in touch, and I admire her brave lifestyle choices.

Inspired by JT, I decided to buy a brand new car – I wanted reliability, even if I didn’t have far to travel. A local dealership had a sale on, and I test drove an entry-level car. Meanwhile another member of the team, CH, had found an advert for the same car at a much cheaper price. I returned to the dealer on the last day of the sale and showed them the advert. The saleswoman agreed to match the price, muttering “I shan’t make a penny on it” as I signed the paperwork.

Once again, I had been bold and asked for what I wanted, and I was prepared to walk away if I didn’t get it – an approach that would continue to come in handy throughout my life.

Sometimes I didn’t even need to ask: CH and I lived closest to the office, but we were both perennially late – so, without discussion, our manager introduced flexible working hours. I’ve never been one to watch the clock, so I was grateful for the gesture – which I took as proof of her appreciation for our work.

1987 – Mallorca – Paul’s and my first holiday together

Starting with the company-owned travel agency – where Paul and I booked our first holiday together – I became more involved in working with internal clients to identify their computing needs. When I first became a programmer, I wanted to get away from people, because I was disillusioned with some of my former colleagues. But I’m a communicator at heart, and I missed that connection – so I appreciated the opportunity to get more involved.

When I turned 30 I got the urge to buy a property. I had never imagined being a home owner – Paul and I were happy in our rented flat – but it seemed like a good investment for the future. Flats in our local area were expensive – so an advisor suggested Paul and I buy a house together instead, as houses didn’t cost much more than flats. But we weren’t earning enough to qualify for a mortgage.

1989 – on holiday together in Amalfi, Italy

After two and a half years at the pharmaceutical warehouse, a new team was formed to work on some exciting new projects – while CH and I were left behind to maintain the old systems, because we had the most experience. Disenchanted, we both resigned within a week of each other.

I had already found a new job as an Analyst / Programmer at an airfreight company near Heathrow airport. Paul and I had worked out that I needed to increase my income by 35%, in order for us to qualify for a mortgage – so when the interviewer asked what salary I had in mind, I told him. He gulped – and after a brief pause said: “OK.” Our mortgage was secured.

* * *

From the first day at my new job, I knew I had made a mistake. The commute took twenty minutes on interview day, but lasted over an hour in peak traffic – and the offices were shabby. And I found my supervisor patronising – for example, he told me to put some updated information pages into a ring-binder, and explained the exact process as though I were a child.

I was sent on a two week training course to learn a new programming language – but I discovered, on my return, that it was incompatible with our existing setup. Desperate for something to do, I taught myself another programming language (my sixth) so that I could help a colleague who was snowed under with work.

After five months, I told my manager I was unhappy because of the commute. He suggested that I work flexi-time, to avoid the rush hour traffic. Although this improved the journey, I was still unhappy – and when the company was bought out by a rival firm, I took it as my cue to leave.

I had five job offers to choose between – all local – so I chose the one that would give me the most scope. It also offered official flexi-time – but it meant a drop in salary. Paul and I had moved into our own house by then, though, so my salary was less important – as long as we could cover the monthly mortgage payments.

* * *

I started working in the IT department of a local government office, as a senior Analyst / Programmer in a team of one – working on PC projects for clients in various departments, and learning two more computer languages.

A year later, I led a team of programmers on a mainframe project. It was a big challenge, managing people, working with a programming language I didn’t really know – and communicating with clients who had no interest in computers.

We were due to launch the system on April 1st – but during lunch there was a minor earthquake, which caused the mainframe computer to crash. Earthquakes are practically unheard of in the UK – and when I told the clients, they thought it was an April Fool’s joke.

A senior manager had been assigned to help me with the project – but he was hardly ever around, and he wasn’t particularly helpful. So when my “grandfather” manager, PY, encouraged me to become a manager myself, I told her I wasn’t interested and that “managers are rubbish.” Undeterred, she sent me on a management training course.

1991 – on holiday in Cologne, Germany – visiting M and R together

I was then chosen to lead a large PC-based project, piloting a new process for designing and building computer systems. Another analyst and I estimated that the project would take a year to complete – unfortunately my line manager, AW, told the IT Director something different. After five months, when we had finished the analysis stage, I was told we only had one month left to build the system.

I remembered I had previously explained to PY that I have no concept of time.

“You shouldn’t say that,” she admonished. “You should say that you find time management challenging.”

“No, that’s not it, “ I said. “I have no concept of time.”

I did, however, have enough concept of time to realise that one month wasn’t long enough to write all the programs – and that our original estimate had been more accurate.

By then, I had a different grandfather manager, GM – someone with a reputation for being inflexible and pedantic. He had already banned talking in the office – if we needed to ask a question about work, we had to send an e-mail. So much for team-building.

In a meeting with GM and AW, I asked for more time – explaining that we had originally given an estimate of a year. When GM accused us of being incompetent, I stood my ground and argued our case with determination and passion.

As a result, I was put in charge of the project – and AW was demoted to the role of programmer, which he was ill suited to. Fortunately we had a good relationship and communicated our frustrations to each other throughout the rest of the project.

On one occasion, AW told me that GM had asked whether he thought I talked too much. In a meeting with GM later that day I declared that, if he wanted to know anything about me, he should ask me himself.

“Do you think you talk too much?” he asked.

“It’s called Relationship Building,” I replied.

“Couldn’t you do that outside of work time?”

Ever the introvert, I said “No. I don’t want to socialise with these people – I just want to have a good working relationship with them.”

As we predicted, the system was completed and launched a year after the project started, despite senior management repeatedly trying to pull the plug. The clients were very grateful, as it helped them tremendously in their jobs. I was even congratulated by the IT Director. But the project had left a bad taste.

Shortly afterwards, I came across an article about a pan-European task force, set up to discuss local government problems. I mentioned the article to GM and said that I would love a job that involved travel abroad.

“Well, you’re not going to get that here,” he said.

I’ve never been sure whether he meant ‘so you might as well give up that idea’ or ‘so you’d better look for another job’. Either way, I had set my heart on being paid to travel. Holidays were nice – but it wasn’t the same as being part of a working community.

Two weeks later I spotted an advert in the computer press for a European Systems Supervisor at a local firm, working on systems for their offices in Italy and Spain.

Although I didn’t speak any Italian, the job sounded perfect except for one thing – they wanted experience of a programming language I had never heard of. When I was younger, I would have bluffed my way through – but this was a senior role, and I felt they would expect perfection.

A friend in my team surreptitiously handed me a clipping of the same advert, a few days later, and I explained the problem with the programming language.

“So?” she asked.

So I applied for the job and started a month later.

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