I asked my wife, Jen Phillips, if she’d be willing to be my subject for Ada Lovelace Day this year. Jen got a degree in Ecology from Durham University in 2000, and currently works as a technical author. She tweets as JetlagJAP and has a blog called Void and Actuality.
Russell Phillips: Let’s start at the beginning. What sort of STEM things did you do at GCSE and A-level?
Jen Phillips: At GCSE, I didn’t really have any choice. Everything was required, so I did the standard dual-award science and standard maths. Options were limited. Everyone did the same. At A-level, I did Biology, Chemistry and Maths. I did an AS in Further Maths as well.
RP: So, then you went to university. I know you have a degree in Ecology, but I’m hazy on exactly what that means.
JP: It’s the study of organisms and how they interact with their environment. Environment being defined as the physical and biological parts of everything it interacts with. So, everything from the kind of ground it walks on, to the prey it eats, to the cycle of seasons.
RP: What sort of thing did you do for your ecology degree?
JP: We looked at all aspects of biology generally. There was biochemistry, statistics, we did a lot of botany, with an entire module on alpine plants. We looked at paleoecology, which involves digging up earth from millions of years ago and looking at tree spores to get an idea of the environment as it was then.
RP: You left university as an ecologist. After some time doing work that isn’t STEM-related, you became a technical author. Can you tell me exactly what that involves?
JP: At it’s most basic form, it’s writing user manuals for software, but it also involves some degree of user interface design, support work for users and software design. It’s not as simple as writing down how to do something, there’s a lot of research involved in the subject matter, how a piece of software is used, how it was designed and how it works. A lot of it is translating between Geek and English.
RP: Do you ever get to tell the developers that they’re being stupid putting that button there, and that they should move it?
JP: (laughs) I frequently do. Whether they listen to me is another matter. I’m well known for telling them to their face that they’re wrong, and filing bug reports left, right and centre.
RP: So there is an aspect of designing software as well as writing how to use it?
JP: There is. Not as much as I’d like. Usually by the time I get my hands on something new, it’s two days before release date and can we have the manual please?
RP: That sounds like they’re not getting as much out of you as they could.
JP: I keep offering, but that’s not the way they work. I’m not part of the technical team, I’m part of the product team. I don’t think they quite see me as on the same side.
RP: The product team presumably gets the product when it’s done, rather than helping to build it?
JP: Generally, yeah. Mostly what we do is using the in-built wizards for our platform to create modules. The techies make the platform and the wizards, we use the wizards to create modules on the platform.
RP: So, to put this in terms that people will understand, the techies write Facebook, and you write apps that run on it?
RP: And if they involved you in writing Facebook…?
JP: It would make the apps easier to write, easier to use and generally better.
RP: Do other companies do that?
JP: It varies a lot. Technical Author is not my job title, although it is what I do. Some companies employ technical authors with that job title, and expect them to be involved in software development from the start. A new ISO was set up last year about using technical authors in agile programming. That starts out with “use your technical authors from the very beginning”, because they have a different perspective. They look from a user’s perspective so that they’ll be able to describe it to a user. They think more about what a user will want to do.
RP: There were some things you wanted to mention.
JP: The first is how it all started, which was much earlier than GCSE. I fell in love with science when I was very young. Specifically, I fell in love with nature when I was a toddler. When dad had to look after me, he’d dig in his allotment and find a worm for me to play with. I was fascinated by things with too many legs or none at all.
RP: I’ve heard stories about you bringing things with too many legs into the house.
JP: Yeah. Full credit to my mother for not freaking out and managing to hide her revulsion, and allowing me to explore what I was interested in.
RP: Do you think your dad giving you creepy crawly things to poke at is what started you down the biology/ecology road?
JP: It was a very major factor, yes. Whether I would have done it anyway, I don’t know, but it was my earliest experience of nature and biology.
RP: That wasn’t a deliberate plan of your dad’s?
JP: No, that wasn’t his plan at all. He has always been interested in nature. He’s a rambler, he loves being in the wilderness. It seemed natural to him to share that, and I showed an interest. I think mum was very important as well, because she gave me the freedom to let me explore what I wanted to explore. Mum was less interested and less keen to handle worms and things, but she never showed that, she never let it get in my way. I was very lucky that I had an unconstrained childhood. When I brought things in, she’d suggest that it would be happier in the garden, and I’d take it back out to the garden. As I said, it was a very unconstrained childhood. I was allowed to choose what I was interested in, what I did and didn’t want to play with, and I think that was very important. I think a lot of girls are only given dolls, dolls houses and pretty things.
RP: Because they’re girl’s toys and they’re what girls play with.
JP: Yes. I had all sorts. I was welcome to play with trains, dolls, Lego, tea sets and whatever.
RP: So you had traditional girls toys, but you had other things as well. You didn’t just have dolls and tea sets.
JP: I also had cars and trains, yes.
RP: There was another thing you wanted to mention?
JP: Yeah. Talking through it all makes you realise things. One of the things that made it possible for me to follow the STEM path was that I was always encouraged to find out about anything I was interested in, right from the beginning. That gave me a love of learning that I still have. We had lots of books, my house has always been full of books. My dad had a lot of books on science, biology, gardening. There were other books as well, encyclopedias and so on. Every time I had a question, I got an answer. The answer might be to get a book and find out. Nowadays I’m more likely to google than find a book, but the principle is the same. I think that’s important in a world where technology is changing at such a pace.
RP: Do you think that also gave you a science mindset?
JP: Yes, it did. It’s that inquisitiveness, the desire to know, just for the sake of knowing. I still find out and learn for the sake of learning. It’s quite fundamental to what I do now. I have to find out how a piece of software works, to poke at it (and frequently break it). It’s helped my career in other ways. When I was on maternity leave the first time, I taught myself HTML and CSS simply because it was interesting.
RP: Getting back to learning how the software works, without a manual, because it hasn’t been written yet. Do you talk to the techies about how it works, or do you just work it out yourself?
JP: A bit of both. It depends, on how busy the techies are, when the manual needs to be ready, whether it’s brand new or a tweak to existing software. If it’s brand new, I’ll get involved as soon as I can. The tester likes me to get involved because he knows I’m good at breaking software because I’ll poke it until it falls apart. I often end up going to the techies with questions because I haven’t understood the interface. In those cases, the text on the screen will often be changed. Sometimes though, management or marketing or whoever insists on it being a particular way and the techies can’t change it.
RP: How similar is poking at software to see how it works to the experiments that you did at university?
JP: There are similarities. I figure out how I think it should work, then experiment to see if it does. If something strange happens, I use a fairly scientific method to figure out what went wrong. I’ll go through a series of experiments, often several times, to prove that it’s a specific bug. The experimentation and compiling of evidence is very similar to a scientific experiment.
RP: Are the techniques that you use standard technical author techniques, or are they ones that you use because of your science background?
JP: Both. I’m pretty much self-taught as a technical author. There are no technical authors in my company, so I’ve picked stuff up from other technical authors on Twitter, from blogs etc. There’s a lot that I don’t know. I’ve applied methods that seemed sensible to me.
RP: Changing tack, do you think that being a woman has hindered you at all, and if so, how?
JP: Yes, it has. I don’t think what I have in my pants has a bearing on whether or not I can do a job, what I have in my head is more important. It has got in the way sometimes, though. I’m not as pushy as perhaps I should be in work, in the sense of putting myself forwards. I think that’s partly social conditioning. There’s also the fact that I have children and they come first. It’s impossible to know whether that’s because of who I am or because of social conditioning. Society is set up to frown on people that have children. Dads can get away with it because they take a fortnight off, but after that they’re not expected to drop everything to pick up sick kids from school. Women are generally lower paid, so they can better afford to take a career break, and having taken that break, they’re then that much further behind.
RP: Do you think there were extra difficulties at university because you were a woman?
JP: I wasn’t aware of any, it seemed more equal. The issues I have now largely revolve around me being a mum, which I wasn’t then, and money. Because of societal conditioning, I don’t know how to ask for a pay rise. There have been studies that show that men are better at that, largely because men are taught to expect that, to put themselves forwards and to basically be selfish. Society teaches women, on the other hand, to think of other people first. It’s an extension of being a home-maker, mum and wife. Again, that wasn’t really relevant at university – I couldn’t ask for a pay rise. Doing ecology may have been a factor – it had a roughly equal gender split, so I didn’t stand out like say a female physicist would. Although, I don’t think I recall a single female lecturer. The admin staff and cleaning staff were all female, as I recall. The technicians were mixed. I suspect it’s partly a generational thing. I left university 10 years ago, and the people that were lecturing me would have finished their undergraduate degrees at least five years, most of them 10 or 20 years previously.
RP: I’d assumed that academia would be more progressive.
JP: It should be, but it’s actually the opposite. I know a few women in academia, and they speak of it as being like an old boy’s club. You need a lot of drive to get anywhere, which makes it impossible to do that and become a mother. You can do it and become a dad by basically being a weekend dad. It’s much more difficult to be a weekend mum, especially during the early days, when you really have to take a break to heal and establish breastfeeding, because they can’t be passed over to the dad.