Reflections on a career in IT

Exactly ten years ago next month I started work in the fledgling mobiles-for-development sector. I was incredibly lucky to get in so early, in large part due to the incredible foresight of the corporate team at Fauna & Flora International who realised the potential of mobile in the conservation and development fields very early, and invited me on board to help figure out the technology challenges.

I’d never worked with mobile phones before, but to be fair in December 2002 very few other people had either. What did stand me in good stead was my earlier IT experience. Looking back now it all looks incredibly archaic, demonstrating – more than anything – the speed and rate of innovation in just half my lifetime.

This is the computer I learnt to program on. The Commodore PET had a whopping 32K of RAM, no hard drive (just a cassette deck to save programs to tape), and a massive 40 character screen width. Learning how to hack this as a teenager eventually launched a career in IT (with a bunch of travel and a university education in between).

In the mid-1980’s, as my professional IT career began, I took charge of this beauty at Hambros Bank in Jersey. This Burroughs B1900 mainframe had 2Mb of RAM and ran all of the bank’s systems. It had six exchangeable drives and a command console to drive everything. These were the fun days of computing when everything was big, everything seemed to breathe, and machines had soul.

I doubt I’ll look back at my iPhone or MacBook Air with the same feeling of nostalgia and romance. But let’s save that for another post, perhaps when I celebrate my twentieth anniversary in mobile…

Three objects that define

House moves are always fun, particularly the things that re-emerge from old boxes years after they’ve been buried away. While most of it turns out to be useless, unwanted junk, sometimes you stumble across something which ended up having a bigger impact on your life than you ever imagined. Here are three objects, recently unearthed, which have done that for me.

Writing

I must have been about 10 or 11 years old when my mother bought me an old, ridiculously heavy Olympus typewriter from the “Under £10” section of our local newspaper . It was my first ever typewriter – I later ‘upgraded’ to a new model from Boots once I’d saved up enough money from my paper round – and I don’t remember much of any conversation we had before she bought it. But what I do know is that it unleashed my passion for writing. Homework was never the same again, and I must have written the majority of my poems on it, something I did a lot of in my younger years.

In 1978, the Amoco Cadiz ran aground off the Channel Islands, and for several months I took an unusually strong interest in the subject of oil – how it was found, where it came from, how much was left, how often spills happened, and so on. The culmination of this fascination was a ‘research project’ bound in a small A5 folder, imaginatively entitled “Oil: By Kenneth Banks”, which I still have to this day.

Today, writing remains a passion and is an important expressive outlet for me and my work. I’d never have imagined back in those days that I would end up writing for the BBC website, or PC World. I have a lot to thank that Olympus for. And my Mum, of course.

Computing

There was never really much to do on the estate where I was brought up, so the opening of a local club by Mr. Cooper was a main outlet for many of the children. It was a big estate, however, and the club had a waiting list. When I did eventually get the nod to join, Mr. Cooper had been using Commodore PET computers for some time in his other job – helping children with learning difficulties. During club hours we were allowed to play games on the PET, and were allocated around ten minutes each because of the high demand.

These amazing machines were powered by cassette players, and we quickly learnt the two commands we needed to use them. “LOAD” loaded the game, and when that was complete, “RUN” would execute it. I knew there had to be more to it than that, so during my short spells at the screen I’d try and figure out what else I could do. “LIST” was a revelation – a command to display the code. I soon realised that if I changed anything here, if it didn’t break the program it made it do something else. A programming career was born.

After a short while I was writing my own teaching programs for Mr. Cooper and earning extra pocket money from it. I have a lot to thank him for. Computers were hugely expensive in those days, and he gave me the opportunity to learn something which was only just starting to be taught in schools. Without this, a central pillar of my work today would never have been formed, and it’s highly unlikely I’d ever have been able to talk my way into an IT career, which I later did.

Travelling

By 1993 I was out of school and – thanks to Mr. Cooper and a few other lucky breaks – working in the local IT industry. I’d already decided that a career in finance wasn’t for me. By a few twists of fate (described later on this page of my website) I found myself on a Jersey Overseas Aid project that summer, helping build teaching accommodation in Northern Zambia. It was a life-changing experience, and took my life and career into a totally new and unexpected direction. An interest and fascination – and later, career – in development was born over those few short weeks, and I’m still as engaged in it as ever, 17 years on.

Since that first trip I’ve had the pleasure and honour to live and work in a number of other African countries – Uganda, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya among them – and have made some incredible friends and even more incredible friendships along the way.

By September 1993, the month I returned from Zambia, the impact that trip was to have on my life was still largely unknown. Which makes it even more remarkable – perhaps strange – is that I kept a pair of socks from that first visit wrapped in a sheet of newspaper. These socks resurfaced during my recent house move. Some of my very first steps on the African continent are bound up in that marvellous red dust.

So there you have it. Three objects and three meanings that have helped define a life. Funny when you look at it like that.

What three objects define you?