I discovered IT quite late in life compared to most of my peers. I’d never considered computing as a career when I was at school, I had gained limited experience with very basic computer programming on a computer science O-level class. I learned binary and I tried to get my head around very basic computing concepts.
I remember the delight I felt on writing my first FOR NEXT loop that actually worked when the program was initiated. I was obviously more of a technician than a scholar. I didn’t want to learn about Babbage’s engine, I was much keener to learn how the mechanical parts of the computer read the punch tape and converted the tape into characters. I also had other plans for my career. I left school after taking my O levels as I had decided to pursue something completely different and was determined to follow my goal.
I joined the Merchant Navy as a deck cadet on a four-year apprenticeship with Shell Tankers and completely forgot all about computers. Instead I immersed myself in learning how to navigate an oil tanker, load and discharge cargo and maintain the ship’s physical condition with gallons of gloss paint and a chipping hammer. In the late 1970s satellite navigation systems were rare, and even if they were installed on board, they were only accurate to about 1 mile. Instead we relied on using logarithmic tables, sextants and the haversine formula to complete our navigation calculations and mark the ship’s position by the stars and the sun. I passed my exams, becoming the first female deck officer to sail with Shell Tankers, and I had fulfilled my childhood dream.
I left the sea and joined a container shipping company, working in their office as a containership planner. If the vessel was late in port, due to bad weather or cargo loading delays, then it naturally followed that she would arrive later in every other port on her journey. Cargo space on the vessel was sold by the shipping agents up to 3 months in advance; containers were loaded and delivered to a specific schedule to meet the vessel. It was vital that the shipping agents were well aware of any delays to the vessel’s arrival time.
There was a personal computer (PC) on every floor of the shipping company, running Windows 3.11, WordStar and Lotus 123 version 2. It tended to be used to print memos created in the DOS version of WordStar which were occasionally faxed to the ship captains. One day I had an epiphany. I worked out that I could transfer my paper based ships schedule to the spreadsheet in Lotus 123, I could update an entry in one cell of the spreadsheet. Each port in the route could be updated with the new date of either arrival or departure. The spreadsheet would automatically adjust the rest of the schedule for the next 3 months whilst still maintaining the actual historical record of arrival and departure dates. It seems so obvious now, but back then, amongst the team of container planners who had been working using manual methods for years, it was a total revelation.
This simple spreadsheet simplified working across the whole team and made us much more productive.
My love affair with technology and social collaboration began. I realised that I was really good at teaching users about technical—and not so technical—concepts. I loved finding out and explaining how things worked.
I accepted a job as a technical trainer at a Microsoft training provider in London and I suddenly realised that I’d found my niche in technology. I became a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) on NT 3.51. I became a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT). I then became a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) with the Internet certification to the acronym (MCSE+I) shortly afterwards.
I then decided to move on to another challenge. I joined Hewlett-Packard as a presales consultant before joining Microsoft as a technical specialist in the Enterprise team.
My skills gained with AS400 systems in the shipping company proved valuable to the presales specialist team. I spent a couple of years talking to enterprise customers about Windows Server before moving to the Evangelism team to talk about technology to the IT Pro audience. The IT Pro team consisted of four evangelists, an architect and a manager—a very small team who had to reach an audience of around 1 million IT professionals in the UK. Our main metrics were to improve audience satisfaction and reach. But apart from the TechNet newsletter and the Microsoft website, how would we connect with people we didn—t already know?
We started to use social media, specifically blogging, to reach out and talk about what was happening with technology. Back in 2004, YouTube hadn’t yet been purchased by Google so we hosted our own ’blogcasts’’short how-to videos and demos of technology with our voiceover, hosted on a server and linked to from our blogs. We used the technical community to record other blogcasts for us and propagate information on their community sites.
This free sharing of information was mutually beneficial to both the team and the technical community. The resulting videos also benefited users who wanted to learn more about technology.
The community could raise their online profile and demonstrate their technical know-how to their followers, and the team weren’t so stretched in resources to produce these videos. I’d discovered the value of using the extended network to benefit both parties.
I became manager of the team in 2005, working on new ways to connect with different audiences in a global market using different types of social media mechanisms and tools. I stayed at Microsoft until 2009 when I left to start out on my own. I could then really focus on the things that connect people.