16: A Change of Pace

When I started working for the car leasing firm, I was responsible for maintaining and developing the computer systems in Italy and Spain, with help from a junior team member. In my third year, the decision was made to have a local support person in the Rome and Madrid offices instead. The Italian branch also decided they wanted a new system.

RH and I travelled to Rome to gather requirements – from which I would write a detailed Functional Specification, to enable software houses in Rome to submit a quote. During the first day of our visit, there was a technical problem, which RH and PP had to sort out. I assured RH that I was able to conduct interviews in Italian, without PP as interpreter.

Over dinner one evening, the Managing Director and Finance Director invited me to stay in Rome and work for them – bursting into the Jackson Browne song “Stay Just a Little Bit Longer” when we left the restaurant. Talk about awkward.

“Oh won’t you stay just a little bit longer?”

“RH won’t mind,” they said to his face.

Unfortunately, RH did mind – and from that moment, our working relationship deteriorated. He started to get tetchy when I arrived at the office late – despite his own tardiness. He got annoyed if I stopped to talk to anyone, instead of heading straight to my desk – even though the conversations were about work. He appeared resentful that people liked talking to me – which reminded me of the bullies from my school days.

Things came to a head when I was called for Jury service, in the middle of writing the Functional Specification. I had limited time to finish the document, and RH kept interrupting my flow – getting me to phone the Madrid office to ask about the status of things. When I reported back, he would be dissatisfied with the answer – and he would get me to call them again or phone them himself. In view of the tight deadline, this felt like a waste of time – especially as RH never appeared to do anything.

One lunchtime, a friend (BB) and I were chatting about what we would do if we won the Lottery – and BB asked RH what he would do. “I wouldn’t resign,” he said. “I’d keep coming to work, and I’d do nothing, until they got fed up and fired me.” BB and I stared at each other, wondering whether RH had already won the Lottery and nobody had noticed the difference.

A couple of days later, when RH started ranting about a phone call I had made to Madrid, I decided I’d had enough. A few weeks before, he had sent me on an Assertiveness training course – and I chose that moment to practise what I had learned.

I pointed out that I only had two weeks in which to finish the Functional Specification, that the phone calls were slowing me down, and that it would make more sense if RH spoke to the Madrid office directly. He disagreed – implying that he was too busy. We then argued for an hour, across the desk, in an open-plan office – getting nowhere.

The following morning, RH told me to focus on the Functional Specification.

* * *

I encountered a similar attitude with the new support manager in Madrid (JN). He made it clear from the outset that he didn’t consider me to be his equal – despite my role being senior to his.

During one visit, when I was doing something I had done countless times before, something weird happened – computer files started to disappear. At first I wondered whether I was at fault, but I quickly realised I wasn’t. Unfortunately, JN disagreed.

“I’ve worked with this type of system for years,” he said, “and this has never happened before.”

“I’ve also worked with this type of system for years, and it’s never happened to me before, either,” I replied. “But it’s happened now, and we need to do something about it.”

We tried to recover the computer files, but nothing worked. We also discovered that the backups JN had taken on the previous two days had failed. I started to think there was a serious problem somewhere – JN disagreed. A year later, he still blamed me for the incident, even though a local supplier had found several technical problems and fixed them.

I had already returned to the London office, when the CEO phoned RH for his opinion on the incident. I was surprised that RH backed me up – I expected him to throw me to the lions. Presumably he recognised my integrity. Either that, or he disliked JN even more than he disliked me.

1994 – Plaza Mayor, Madrid

One of the problems I had noticed in the Madrid office was that nobody had received any training on how to use the computer system – so incorrect data was being fed in, leading to incorrect invoices coming out at the other end. My final project was therefore to teach the teams in Madrid how to use the system – in Spanish.

To show them how stupid computers are, I translated the game from the Apple IIe computer I had used back in Birmingham – the one where the computer asks “is it a bison?” Fortunately, with the help of a few cartoon-like drawings, I managed to get the message across – everybody laughed, and I considered that to be a good start to the training. It’s a pity I didn’t have similar cartoons to help me, when I had to explain to the accounting team how depreciation works.

* * *

Once local IT support had been established in both Rome and Madrid, I no longer had a role to play – so I needed to find something new.

1993 – Notre Dame de Paris

As a French speaker, I was part of a team seconded to the Paris office for a month, to help them recover dozens of vehicles – after the drivers had abandoned their old cars by the side of the road at the end of the lease, rather than returning them to the garage when they picked up their new cars.

I enjoyed being back in France – but I was hopeless as an interpreter. Simultaneous translation is an extraordinary skill – which, sadly, I don’t possess. When I’m speaking or listening to another language, I think in that language rather than in English – so, although I understand everything being discussed, I find it difficult to translate the conversation into English so that others can understand.

I applied for other jobs – but I was in a difficult position, because the programming languages I used were old-fashioned, and there weren’t many opportunities for cross-training. So I had to consider new roles that would make use of my skills.

I turned down a job as a project manager for a company which specialised in translating software into different languages. It seemed like a good fit – but there was a long commute, no international travel, and I wasn’t sure whether I would enjoy the role. Previously, I might have given it a go – but I had learned my lesson about accepting jobs with a long commute.

I also turned down a job as a project manager for an international hardware manufacturer, even though they were very keen for me to join them. Once again, it would have been too far to commute. But what decided me was the fact that the name of my future boss and the name of the company were almost identical to my current boss and company. It just felt too weird.

Instead, I took on a new role within the existing company – working alongside the UK sales team as a pre-sales technical consultant. The client-facing role dragged me out of my shell somewhat – although I spent most of my time driving up and down the country to client sites, on my own, in some very fancy “demonstrator” cars. Since my own car was a basic model with no radio or tape player, I enjoyed driving these luxury cars – it gave me an opportunity to experience how the other half lived.

Apart from the client visits and the fancy cars, though, the job was exceedingly dull – so I continued to look for alternatives.

One of the recruitment agents I contacted had written down my details and taken my photograph for his file. Looking down his nose at my lace-up shoes, he said “those look comfortable,” which I took to be code for “boring” – so I didn’t hold out much hope of him finding something suitable.

At Christmas, I wasn’t awarded a pay rise – unlike everyone else in the department. When I asked my manager about it, she said “you’re already being paid more than your job’s worth.”

I knew then, without a doubt, it was time to move on.

Out of desperation, I phoned the ‘comfy shoes’ agent as soon as his office opened in the New Year. He had lost my file during an office move – along with my photograph – and was excited to hear from me.

“This has just come in,” he said, “and it’s only a couple of miles from you. The first place they want to send you to is New Zealand.”

“I don’t want to go to New Zealand,” I thought. “It’s on the other side of the world. How will someone like me, with acute claustrophobia, cope with being sealed up in a flying tin can for 24 hours?”

But my curiosity was greater than my fear.

On a Friday in late January, three days before my 39th birthday, I attended an interview. The following Monday, Paul and I flew to Prague for the day. When we arrived home, there was an answerphone message from the agency, telling me I’d got the job.

New Zealand, here I come!


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