Starting out

I often encourage people to talk about the start of their career. Many early lessons stay with them for their whole working life. I wrote this story for an alumni magazine.


“Do you know anything about this?”

I’m six months into my first job and I’ve been called to the managing director’s office. This mythical beast visits site rarely, drinks black coffee and chain smokes. He’s a man of few words and comfortable with expletives. His feet rest on the desk and he has before him a page of cut and pasted press clippings.

One Daily Telegraph extract tells of a forthcoming visit, to this very business, by Margaret Thatcher. Our prime minister is to view the latest generation of military radios being developed in our labs and, more surprising still, will be a special guest at the annual and anarchic Christmas skit.

When he asks “do you know anything about this?” I can’t be sure whether he means “do you know anything about the visit” or “do you know where this nonsensical story came from”. I think of various answers, but not the truthful one: I’ve just been introduced to my first ever PC – an Apple Mac – and what better way to test its fonts and my mimicry skills than by generating a fake news story? I always wondered if anyone actually read the bits of paper I glued together.

My second visit to his office, three months on, is marginally less terrifying. The outcome of boredom and curiosity has got me noticed again, but this time in a good way. I’ve been put in charge of the technical library (what else to do with an English Lit graduate in an electronics research company?) and decide the books on these venerable oak shelves are deserving of a small revolution. I’ll computerise them.

Forget Dewey Decimal classification. I want a system where someone says “I’d like a book on fast Fourier transforms” and – without a clue what they’re on about – I can find it in a shot. So I get an engineer to teach me a simple programming language from which I can create a book database, searchable by keyword. (If there was off-the-shelf software back then that would have done the job, nobody told me).

The programming is totally absorbing, the cataloguing less so. I take down from those shelves many hundreds of books, decide from the chapter headings on the most appropriate keywords, and enter them into my database. I have a target number of shelves a day, and in twelve weeks I’ve entered every single last volume. When anyone comes through that door they’d better have a book enquiry for me.

Our managing director was not a man to visit libraries but he did like people who shook things up. He seemed even more interested that – as a side line – I’d been monitoring usage of the library’s magazines to determine which ones we could more economically loan than buy, savings hundreds of pounds a year. I soon found myself the youngest on a high-flyers programme. Good things can come of boredom.


Image: Rosemary Eatherden