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Without a Plan

Without a Plan: HP Sauce

So, where are we?
I started out as a kid who just wanted to write stories for a living, discovered the power of computing, dabbled in music but ultimately failed, decided not to pursue a career in acting, gotten serious about computing again after a car accident gave me an opening, took it to University and then quit, started and ended a brief career in manufacturing, gone back to school (sort of), and suddenly found myself earning more money and security clearance than I knew what to do with, for five weeks.

I knew that the security clearance was a Golden Key to something special. All you had to do was look at the job postings to realize that if you had SC, you were making bank. For my contract, I was making £1000 a week. At my manufacturing role, I was making about £1000 a month. As I mentioned, that was really a terrible wage, but a grand a week was still a lot of money even compared to a more reasonable salary.

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Without a Plan

Without a Plan: Requesting Clearance

We were on the phone a lot during week five of the course. By now we’d done a lot of intensive learning, had overhauled our CVs and had set them free on the internet. It was 2007 and there were IT jobs everywhere as companies scrambled to make digital transformations and grow their teams to support the initiatives.

One of the concepts that had come up during the training was around contract jobs. I’d never even considered the idea of a contract role, but I was to discover that there were a lot of them around. I put my CV out into the world seeking literally any type of IT role, and one of the first bites I got on the line (mixing my metaphors here) was from somebody recruiting for a contract role. A contract role that was only three weeks long, but would pay the same amount (pre-tax) as almost three months at my previous role.

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Without a Plan

Without a Plan: Bootcamp

When I left my job, nobody was surprised. As it turns out, nobody had expected that I’d be happy seeing out my early 20s in a smoke-filled office chasing up suppliers for a small electronics firm. They were even less surprised when I told them I was going to pursue a career in IT.

In my hopeful fervor, I remember telling them excitedly that it was a great field to go into, because you can never hope to know everything about all that the field encompasses. There’s just no way, which means there’s the option for endless career and knowledge advancement, should you wish.

It’s a sentiment I still share with my colleagues today, and is more true than ever with the rise of cloud computing and ‘Everything-as-a-Service’. I think it’s a good motivational point to make, but it also serves as a bit of a ‘get out of jail’ card – you can specialize in an area, sure. You can become very very knowledgeable about a lot of things, but that usually takes a lot of time and experience. In IT, nobody has ever criticized me for not understanding where a truly weird errant behavior is coming from. In fact, sometimes I find that it puts people at ease when the ‘tech guy’ is as confused as they are. Usually when you have a problem with something, you want the expert to go ‘Aha! It’s this doohickey’, and fix the doohickey. I think that computers are so commoditized now, so commonplace, that to some it’s almost embarrassing when they have to ask for help, and the ‘tech guy’ being stumped with a problem reassures them that they’re not just making an idiot mistake.

Most of the time, they are making an idiot mistake.

So, I left. I packed up my things and moved on, quite literally. The training center I was leaving to join was a couple of hours North East of where I lived, so I would be staying there during the week, in housing that the company owned.

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Without a Plan

Without a Plan: Manufacturing a Crisis

So it’s taken 19 years to take me from bright eyed bouncing boy and school achiever to a college dropout who’s officially unemployed. There’s a thousand ways up, it’s the same way down.

Yeah, I make it sound worse than it really is. I took an informed, considered choice that would irrevocably alter the planned course of my life and it was only affected a small amount by my desire to own a car.

My first big decision in my new life was to redecorate my bedroom. A few years previous, I was away on a skiing trip in France and my parents redecorated my bedroom in orange and yellow. Orange was my favorite color at the time, having taken over top spot from the more morose blue. Clearly I’d been feeling jazzy about my life (I still love orange, but am less jazzy these days) but now I needed something new.

I went with a muted earthy color palette and did the work myself, earning praise from my Dad (which was genuinely a proud moment – he did this shit all the time with all the moving) and a week of physical work that yielded great results. It was a real shot in the arm for my state of mind, given that I’d just hurled myself out of the airplane without a parachute.

I went on Unemployment, which netted me a small weekly income, but meant that I had to basically apply for any job I could find. Unfortunately I wasn’t really the target audience of the Job Center, given that I was really looking for higher level positions than they had. I was good with going in at the ground floor, but it had to at least be the right industry.

My dole status gave my old friends great mirth when they all came back at Christmas and discovered my status. Not long afterwards, the Job Center told me I’d have to take a competency test because I hadn’t been placed in a role.

Rather than suffer the humiliation, I came off Unemployment. At that moment, the universe intervened.

The Purchasing Manager at a rival firm to the one my Dad worked at was looking for some help, and had offered to give me an interview as a favor to Dad. We went to town, my mum bought me a suit (as I had no money of my own!) and I went off to interview … and got the job, somewhat unsurprisingly. I don’t say that with my head up my own arse, but as an extension to the ‘favor to Dad’.

The role was a ‘progressor’. I was there to ‘progress’ orders, i.e. chase our vendors when goods didn’t come in. We were an electronics manufacturing firm, operating on tight margins in an ever-shrinking industry in the UK. My Dad was managing the exact same problems over in his area of town, and had been for most of my life. He was always afraid of losing his job, for fear of what that would do to us. Because of the industry he was in, it was a real risk pretty much the whole time I’ve been alive.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t great at my job. I hate talking on the telephone, and this was 2004, well before people preferred emails and texts over voice conversations. I’m also not good at being pushy and arguing with people. Really, I was a terrible choice for this job, and the more I think about it, the more I owe my Dad and my boss for going along with it.

However, I did enough to keep things rolling and to stay employed. I spent a lot of time at the computer and even when there was nothing going on, I tried to look busy. In 2004, the ban on smoking enclosed spaces hadn’t come into force yet. I would spend the days soaking in a stew of cigarette smoke from the eight admin staff they employed (because they refused to use computers in admin, everything was typed by hand), and the choking pipe smoke from another colleague. When I got home it smelled like I’d spent the day in a pub.

I tried to block this out and motivate myself by writing whenever I had a spare moment. A Massively Multipler Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) called The Matrix Online had come out in Beta when I was still at University, and I was very active in the community. I loved The Matrix and its sequels (yep, both of them) and was loving the game, especially the Role Playing outside aspect of it, where I would trade stories about our characters with other players in our guild. There was one guy I used to write alongside who was always deeply impressive. I was in quiet awe of his skill with the written word, and it was of no surprise to me that he’s gone on to be very successful in a creative role.

I wrote a lot. They started off as quick posts, shorter than one of these blog posts (that’s not difficult, I hear you scream as you question Why am I still reading these?!) but eventually growing into multi-chapter epics. It was an exhilarating time, and it made me look incredibly busy at work!

I was at the company for two years. I didn’t spend all that time behind the desk either, I worked in the stores on and off when needed, I manned the PCB cutting station, I assisted with quality inspections at our PCB factory. I learned a lot about a company, and how and why it works the way it does. Even though the company was old fashioned in a lot of ways, it was their procedures that were behind the times, but the business processes themselves were sound. Even though much of the day-to-day had been monotonous, I walked away having learned a great deal that would set me up well for the future.

But why did I walk away?

Obviously I was bored, but I had to be pulled out of my funk, I didn’t do it myself. I did look for jobs, but half heartedly, and I don’t know how long I would have stayed in that mild depression were it not for my best friend, the guy who offered an olive branch of friendship on the school bus a long time ago.

He had been a year ahead of me, so had graduated University and was into work whilst I was ‘progressing’. He was working tech support for a big company up North (it calls me back always), and had recommended to his bosses that they give me an interview. In his words to them, everything he knew, he learned from me.

Gulp.

After two desk bound years, my waistline had expanded. This was unforeseen to everybody involved, as I’d always been like a twig growing up. It was also discovered at an unfortunate time, as I was putting on the suit from two years ago, to go and interview to work with my friend and had to catch a train later that morning.

So I get the suit on looking, as my Mum put it, like I’d stuffed two balloons down the back of my trousers, and went to the train station. I had decided (I think been talked into it) to take the train and not drive. This would be a mistake.

I take the train to Crewe, and discover that the office is down a long road to an industrial estate that is not paved. It’s mid-August and has been raining, so by the time I reach the office my shoes and the hems of my trousers are covered in road muck, and I am all out of sorts.

I chat well with my first interviewer, and then find out that she’s just pre-screening me. The next interview is at another office. None of this was communicated to me, and I obviously have no way of getting there. The interview is also in 30 minutes.
We scramble a taxi, with the promise that the journey will cost exactly what I have in my wallet.

It does not.

We arrive late, and the driver graciously waves the additional fee as a penalty to himself for being late. He didn’t really have any other choice, I had not another penny to spare.

Let’s cut right to it. I fuck up the interview. I’m surprised I didn’t get my friend fired, given that ‘everything he knew, he learned from me’ and what I proved was that I knew nothing and was a gibbering idiot who can’t buy a suit that fits.

The ride all the way back home was hugely deflating, and I moped about it for weeks, still at my old job. Wait, didn’t I say I walked away?

Well, my good friend wasn’t finished trying to help me. When he’d left University (with a full degree, I should add) he also found it impossible to even get interviews, let alone a job. He had come across a company offering training courses to help ex-Forces personnel retrain for IT jobs, and also opened the course to non-military personnel. He’d paid for the course, spruced up his CV, and got the job he was at (and tried to help me get).

I knuckled down, saved a few thousand pounds, borrowing the rest from the bank on a now-sadly-terminated educational loan program, and before long walked out of the desk job and found myself in Coventry, living for 8 weeks in a shared house with a bunch of ex-military guys looking for a job that didn’t involve war.

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Without a Plan

Without a Plan: Quitting Time

Growing up, I always felt that there was a familial expectation that my sister and I would go to University. I knew that my education path was mapped out once I realized being an author wasn’t on the cards. My natural assumption was GCSE > A-Level > University Degree > Job, and I was never disabused of this notion by my parents.
To be fair, we never really talked about it. I think they assumed I wanted it, and I assumed they expected it, so we both just went with it.

Despite my exhaustion at the educational treadmill, I applied to University and made sure that I thought the Uni choice was a good one and that the course made sense for the future. I started, as I am wont to do, fantasizing about what the future would be like. I was planning on going a long distance for University, and my girlfriend at the time wasn’t going to be moving that far away from home. We’d be long distance, but I imagined the romantic weekend getaways (Hah, on a student’s budget?! Clearly I was dreaming), the distance making the heart grow fonder, and all of that other bullshit.

Seriously, why am I writing all of this? I swear these are pivotal moments that validate the over sharing of otherwise meaningless personal details.

The author
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Without a Plan

Without a Plan: Computer Crashes and Strange Behavior

So, where were we?
Ah yes, Sixth Form. For me it made sense to stay at the same school and just carry on through to Sixth Form, rather than go to a different college. Most of my friends were going on to A-Level, and most of them were staying at the school, so it would just be another two years of ‘more of the same’.
Sort of.

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Without a Plan

Without a Plan: Act your age

I was a good student. My parents brought me up to work hard and do what I was told which, coincidentally, was what the teachers were telling us. For the most part, I enjoyed the lessons at school. I was sad when we moved and I lost some good lessons – I was doing well at learning Spanish as a full-time course, and was kicking bottom in Home Economics.

Perhaps if we’d stayed, I’d have gone on to be a chef working in Spain.

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Without a Plan

Without a Plan: Turning down a career in music

See!! Told you it wouldn’t take another eight months to write the next one. Are you proud? Well, don’t be. It’s absolutely shameful that it takes me so long to sit and write things and I don’t deserve any praise for stepping over an incredibly low bar.

So, what next? You’ve read about my creative aspirations, and you’ve learned that a computer informed a major life philosophy that I keep with me to this day. So far it seems like my destiny was pretty mapped out, right?

Yeah. Wasn’t like that at the time.

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Without a Plan

Without a Plan: Packard Bell

I really, truly am terrible at blogging. My last ‘Without a Plan‘ post was conceived as a notion on November 27th, written and posted by December 23rd, and it’s now August 23rd of the following year and I’m just sitting down for a Part Deux.

There’s not even a good excuse. Coronavirus restrictions and some truly random, bizarre and unpleasant weather throughout 2021 have conspired to give me plenty of free time outside of work, with which I have done remarkably little. I had loads of time to write this and many subsequent posts, but didn’t. Maybe I’ll unpack that one day, but today is not that day. Today is … the day I go back and read my first post in this series to get back into the flow of wherever the heck I was going in the first place.

Now I think about it, this rocky and unplanned start really does quite fit the theme of this whole thing …

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Social Media Technology

Goodbye WhatsApp, Hello Signal (and Telegram)

(If you’re just looking for the brief version, read it here. Otherwise to read my ramblings, carry on!)

On September 26, 2006, Facebook opened to everyone at least 13 years old with a valid email address.

I remember signing up, thrilled that I could finally be a part of this new ‘Web 2.0’ movement that all my still-at-university friends had been talking about. At the very beginning, it was an incredible new tool for keeping in touch with friends, sharing events, and finding new and interesting ways to socialize.

Over the years, the information that the company has gathered on individuals is staggering in breadth, depth, and scariness. An information gathering campaign that once only existed in the wet dreams of intelligence agency wonks was now a living, breathing thing, and we were all voluntarily giving it more oxygen every day, with every post, every message, every uploaded picture, every ‘Like’.

I now view the company as one of the most insidious and evil companies in tech, and am unable to divorce the many terrible events in real life that have occurred after being organized, in part, on Facebook, from any other benefits it might bring.

In 2009, WhatsApp was launched, and it took off in a big way in the UK and Europe. With smartphones in their infancy but commanding a high price, mobile service providers began offering enticing ‘unlimited data’ plans, to try and encourage us all to swap over to the new expensive devices. As a trade-off, at least for some providers, you had fewer bundled text messages that you could send.
WhatsApp made the idea of ‘bundled texts’ an immediately archaic idea. WhatsApp allowed you to send essentially supercharged MMS messages for, essentially, nothing. It was all ‘data’, and suddenly you no longer sent ‘a text’ you sent ‘a WhatsApp’.

Apple pushed further away from SMS with iMessage so now if you were an Apple user, you expected richer features. If you were messaging an Android user, the obvious answer was WhatsApp.

In 2014, Facebook bought WhatsApp. Now everyone you knew was either on Facebook, or on WhatsApp, but either way you were on a platform controlled by Facebook.

WhatsApp (and Facebook) were immediately at pains to point out that no information would be shared with Facebook, and WhatsApp chats would stay secure.
Of course, those of us who have been in tech a while (or been through an acquisition) know that there are no guarantees and just because a company says they aren’t going to do something, it doesn’t mean they aren’t eventually going to do it.

Sure enough, as of February this year, the WhatsApp Terms of Service are changing (outside of Europe) to remove certain clauses which previously stated that no information would be shared with Facebook.

WhatsApp is no longer a platform I wish to be on as a result.
I’m still on Instagram, another Facebook owned property, and I’m sure there will come a time when I need to move away from that too. The only reason I haven’t already is that there’s no good alternative to it (yet) and I still very much enjoy it.

For WhatsApp though, there are now several excellent alternatives. The two I’ve chosen are Signal and Telegram.

Signal actually uses the same basic encryption as WhatsApp. In fact, WhatsApp only started to encrypt its non-text messages after partnering with Signal to further develop the technology.

Signal.org is a Not-for-Profit organization, and the Signal Messenger app is open source, peer reviewed, and funded entirely by grants and donations. Security is the foremost consideration, then features. I’ve certainly seen improvements in functionality since I started using Signal over a year ago and for the most part it’s just as good as WhatsApp in terms of functionality.

A messaging app with even more features is Telegram. However, this is not an end-to-end encrypted tool. For some, that may not matter and, honestly, if somebody really wanted to pilfer the many (many) cat pictures I exchanged across these services, they’re welcome to them. As mentioned, my primary reason to ditch WhatsApp is its Facebookification.

However, if you’re making a significant change, might as well go for security, right?
So my #1 recommendation is Signal; anybody security-minded who wants to get away from Facebook’s clutches will gravitate to this one.
Telegram is for those who want to ditch Facebook, but can’t live without some of the rich features available elsewhere.
For example, my server has a webhook connection with my Telegram account, allowing the server to send me alert messages directly to my connected devices.

Either way, it’s “So Long” to WhatsApp. It’s been a blast.