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Oral-History:Chris Warner

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About Chris Warner

Chris Warner's initial career was as a math teacher at a secondary school in London. Believing she had maxed out her career track, she attended a computer training class provided by the computer company ICL. This class was the beginning of a career as technology educator and researcher. She has held training / teaching posts at ICL, South Bank, Open University, Kingston University and Reed Connections. These jobs provided her the opportunity to earn her Bachlors and Masters Degrees.

In this interview Warner details her time at each of these posts. She also discusses her research into Decision Tables and how her Computer Science Curriculums have changed over the years. Additionally, she talks about the obstacles to getting women interested in computer science courses.

About the Interview

CHRIS WARNER: An interview conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, April 24, 2001.

Interview #632 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Chris Warner an oral history conducted in 2001 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Chris Warner
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: April 24, 2001
PLACE: Chris Warner’s Office at Reed Connections in Tolworth


Family and Early Education

Abbate:

It’s April 24th 2001. I’m speaking with Chris Warner.

To begin at the beginning: When were you born, and where did you grow up?

Warner:

I was born 4-7-43, in Lancashire. We lived in Liverpool, and moved south to Maldon when I was about five, I think, and stayed there to the end of my primary school time, which was eleven or twelve years, and then moved to Guildford.

I went to Guildford County School on eleven-plus scholarships.

Abbate:

Was that a girls’ school?

Warner:

It was a girls’ school.

Abbate:

Why did you move so much?

Warner:

My father was from the Guildford area. My mother and grandmother were from Lancashire, and I can only presume that they came south when my grandfather died, probably just after the war, because my mother and grandmother lived up in Liverpool, and I would presume that probably it was easier for my father to get a job down here. He was in education.

Abbate:

What was his job?

Warner:

He was teaching, and headmaster in a primary school. The move to Guildford was because he got a promotion: he had a small school there, and he was a headmaster there. And he stayed in that school until he retired. He developed it. My mum was a nurse; she did part-time nursing, and then dental nursing as well.

Abbate:

Did you have brothers and sisters?

Warner:

Yes, I’ve got a sister. My sister’s out in Australia. She started her degree, met her husband, and then they went out to Australia. She went to the same school as well.

Abbate:

Were you interested in maths or science when you were in school?

Warner:

Yes. Maths I’ve always been able to do; it was the easy subject. Sometimes I had gaps in the learning experience—perhaps being in a different form and not going quite so fast as some of the others—so I’ve hiccupped in my maths, but . . . I went on to training college, and I ended up doing some maths there, and then went on to university as well.

Abbate:

What’s a training college?

Warner:

It’s training to be a teacher. So I was trained to be a teacher; I taught; and then decided that—at that stage I went into computing.

Abbate:

So you went from the secondary school to the training college, and that was a couple of years?

Warner:

It’s a three-year training.

Although I was good at maths and I was successful in science (particularly physics; I wasn’t very good at chemistry, but physics I was fine in; we didn’t have biology offered, so I would have probably been interested in that, too) I thought I wanted to do geography. Again, reasonably scientific: it was the physical side I was interested in. So I was being offered degrees in mathematics, and I didn’t want to do mathematics. I did later—and I did go into computing.

Abbate:

When you were at the training college, did you do geography? Did you have a specialty?

Warner:

Well, yes. I wanted to teach teenagers, and so I wanted to specialize in secondary education, and that was stronger than any subject interest. I had assumed when I went there that I would be able to do secondary education with geography, but in fact I couldn’t. I had a short choice: I had maths, English, or physical education; and although I did physical education as well—because I was sporty—I chose to do the maths at college, and stick the with secondary education.

Abbate:

Ah, I see.

Warner:

You know how careers change!

Short Teaching Stint and Taking Classes at ICL

Abbate:

Then you taught for two years?

Warner:

I taught for a couple of years. I taught in a mixed comprehensive school, and I was good at practice of education; I did extremely well in that at college. It was a school in Putney, which is just down the road from here, and I really enjoyed it. I was teaching mathematics, and a bit of English, and I had an afternoon of games. And I think it was then I realized that there were people teaching mathematics who didn’t really know much about mathematics, and they had a degree, and I didn’t; and I got my promotion after my probationary year, and then I would have to wait another ten years, and it wouldn’t be an academic promotion; I couldn’t become head of school, I could only become housemistress or something like that. So I decided ten years was too long for me! [laughs.]

There were two of us who started about the same time, and we decided that computing was interesting. There were agencies at that stage who would train people—they had some tests that you could take, and then interviews and things like that—so I went to several of these agencies to pick their brains about what computing was about, so that when I did decide to go through the interview process, I actually had some knowledge. I didn’t go through their training courses; it was just getting background. And of course with two of us, we used to swap information and talk about what we’d found out.

Then it came to the application for different companies. In this country at that time, ICL and IBM had good training schemes, and they also were obviously good names to be connected with, and we both went for interviews with both companies, and she got a job with IBM, and I chose ICL. They had a brilliant scheme. There were only a few of us on the scheme. They were looking for people who could be trainers, and of course because of my teaching qualification I had the teaching skills, and they would teach the computing skills. We were put through all kinds of different schemes. We did some coding, and we did operating, as well as earning our bread and butter through the teaching; and the teaching was sometimes open courses, where people from any company would come to the center in the middle of London, and otherwise I had specialist courses, and I did my stint of specialist courses around the U.K.

Abbate:

What were the courses on?

Warner:

COBOL. My COBOL and assembler plan; and then there was advanced programming, which was talking about data structures. Do you know about data structures? Lists, and things like that. So a variety. The one that I really enjoyed was the advanced programmers’ course, which was these data structures, and that’s very much an area that I’m still in, really: structuring data, how to make sense of it. It was very physical in those days, and far less so now. But that was a really good start.

Abbate:

What types of machines were you using at that point? You had started in ‘67.

Warner:

ICL 1900s.

Abbate:

And it was punched tape? Punched cards?

Warner:

Oh, I used punched tape, punched cards, yes; and the operating was good, because they’d reshuffle the stuff that I always got in the wrong order, and so my job would run! [laughs.] But, left to myself, it didn’t run very well. I was quite good with punch tape, because you couldn’t really get that wrong, but the punch cards were a nightmare for me.

Abbate:

So the first time you used a computer was after you got this job at ICL?

Warner:

That’s right, yes.

Abbate:

And how long did they train you before they had you go out training other people?

Warner:

Not very long, because we started on very basic courses. I can’t remember exactly. I mean, it didn’t seem long at all. It was probably a year and a half in total before we were deemed qualified. I think if you were able to teach and communicate, then you were very quickly one of the team who did it—because we worked as teams. So for the initial courses, it was a standard pack (exercises and [so forth]), so that in-company, for the open courses, it was pretty standard, [although] you’d get questions. Doing the tailored courses for companies obviously required more in-depth, and because we had met people around the company, one could pick up [technical information]—we weren’t meant to be talking to the people who were developing the software, but one always did. So you’d got the binary dumps , and they’d say, “Now, that’s the bit you’ve got to look at. If you can work out the code, then you’ll find out what it does!” [laughs.] You know, they’d spend a little time showing you, and then you’d. . .

Abbate:

So you learned the binary in order to figure that out?

Warner:

Yes, yes. You had the formats worked out.

Details of Time at ICL

And then the exciting things were some of the trips abroad, many of them East European countries: Russia, Hungary, Poland. And of course there you were very much on your own resources.

Abbate:

How many of you would go on a trip together?

Warner:

Oh, only one.

Abbate:

They’d just send you all by yourself?

Warner:

That’s right. You normally had an ICL support, so there was a presence in the country. You might not be in the same town, but normally they’d greet you, and you’d probably spend some time. In Russia, my flight was delayed for 24 hours, but I had a phone number, and I could find the ICL office. I mean, it’s just part of what going abroad was like in those days! You couldn’t be too precise about when you’d get back, or [anything like that]. It was exciting! It was really exciting.

Because we were still on training, ICL was happy to give us privileges which perhaps you wouldn’t have got otherwise. That was when I started doing my degree at Birkbeck [College of the University of London], when I was with ICL.

Abbate:

Did they pay for it, or give you time off?

Warner:

They did both: they paid it and also, just before the exams, would give time off, and were really very, very supportive. I had a course up in Glasgow—statistics, or numerical methods, something like that—and I wasn’t particularly good at that. Any other subjects I could really do without extra revision classes; but it was coming up for exams, and unfortunately it was the middle of the week. They were happy for me to come back to do my evening [class], as long as I would go back that night and be able to teach the next morning—and they sent another lecturer up just for the half-day, so that I could get back. So it was really very positive support. I wasn’t just, “Oh, you are off on a course”; it was very positive. And it was close enough: it was Birkbeck, and I was at ICL in London, and so it was walking distance to the college. And it was evening only, so it fitted in, [though] sometimes I had to miss the lectures because I was away. Obviously it was this Wednesday one that I normally missed! [laughs.]

Abbate:

So you were able to get your bachelor’s in computer science in 1971?

Warner:

Yes.

Abbate:

How many of the trainers at ICL were women?

Warner:

There were five of us on this particular scheme, and only two of them were men. One of them I was very close to; she had read Italian at university, and so very much a linguist. The third woman I didn’t really know very well; I can’t even, now, remember her background. So there were five of us.

Abbate:

Did you get the sense they were particularly seeking out women for these jobs because they thought they’d be good teachers? Or it just happened that three out of five were women?

Warner:

I think it just happened. At the end, why I left ICL was that it was the men who were promoted, and as far as I know, neither of the other two [women] were offered promotion. I was still doing my degree, and their comment [to justify not promoting me] was, “Well, we thought you’d have enough on your plate with your job and your degree.” I then got another job, and I said I was leaving—and at that stage, you know, it was very much negotiation. Perhaps with maturity, I would have stayed with them, but I was perhaps young, and right was right; wrong was wrong; and if I’d made a commitment elsewhere, I had to honor that. That was just before I finished my degree, and I joined a small software company, “1900 Programming.” Dates it, doesn’t it? [laughs.]

Abbate:

It was called that after the ICL 1900 computer?

Warner:

Yes, yes. I continued and finished my degree with them, but the company went bust, so I had probably six months when I hadn’t got a job. I got a small grant from Birkbeck, and so I decided that at that stage I wasn’t really interested in finding a job, because I thought we could just about make ends meet; and so I finished my degree. That’s when I got my degree.

The 1900 Programming was a great job. It was a pity it was so short-lived. The section I was in was selling software. Now, at that time, people were buying in expertise to write their own code, and so it was exciting to have a software product. We weren’t just promoting a product; we were also having to promote the idea of buying other people’s software and modifying it yourself. There was quite a lot of troubleshooting: people had got the package, and they’d tweaked it in some way, and then it went wrong, and they couldn’t remember what they had done. They’d say, “Help! We can’t make it work anymore!”

Working in Sales

Abbate:

Did they get good source code when they bought it? So they could do whatever they wanted with it?

Warner:

Yes. And I had my first lonely bit of true sales experience, because it’s a small company and a very small team dealing with the software. We did tend to work as a team, so I would answer the phone, and book appointments for the sales person, who was out of the office; and on one occasion, I booked this appointment, and my manager said, “I met somebody you might like to interview . . .”

My manager was a lady. She’s called Jill Johnson. (I’ve got her home address; I don’t know if I’ve got it here, but I’ll check that out.) She’s a bit older than I am, and she’s worked all her life, and again, is a linguist.

Abbate:

Who had founded the company?

Warner:

I don’t know; I can’t remember. It was very small. She’d know all about that, because she was in it much longer than I was. It was very short. I don’t know—probably four months or so.

Abbate:

That you were there?

Warner:

Yes. Which was a bit sad, because I enjoyed that environment. You’d have a problem to solve, and it was very, very flexible. I might be on a train at six o’clock—I was studying, so everyone knew I was studying six till nine—but if there was a problem, I’d go back to the office at nine and sort something out; and if I didn’t turn up till late the next morning, it wasn’t an issue. You know, you didn’t have to say, “I’ll be in by 8:30.”

Anyway, I was telling you about the selling situation. It was my manager who said, “Well you’ll have to go and do it.” There aren’t many that have fazed me, but I didn’t think I was a sales person at all, and I was really, really nervous. So we went out for lunch and a drink before, and then I had to go to this company and hopefully sell them some software.

I didn’t come back with any sale of software, but they were interested in some of the other products the company did, and so it was very satisfying that I actually managed to at least bring home a contact for something that they were interested in, rather than coming back empty-handed and a nervous wreck! [laughs.] 

Abbate:

What sort of software did your company make?

Warner:

Most of the company was doing the traditional software, where somebody wanted something designed specifically for them. As far as I can recall, this was Jill’s idea that really we should be selling packages, and those packages weren’t very complex, as I remember.

Abbate:

Was it sort of administration kinds of things?

Warner:

File processing, where you’ve got standard routines that can be modified by parameters. I think that was the time where people were doing similar things like printing, formatting of reports and things, but they would always design it specifically; and we were trying to look at how you could have the bulk of things done, but you could tailor it. So that was the kind of software.

Teaching and Researching at South Bank University

Abbate:

That’s pretty advanced.

You finished your degree after working at 1900 Programming. What did you do after that? Or what did you think you wanted to do?

Warner:

Well, I had various options. Having done my degree, my professor in the physics department offered me a Ph.D.—and it was quite exciting: it was satellite-tracking, so it would combine my physics and my computing, and it was down at Dartmoor. I’d also got the option of a teaching job at [Polytechnic of the] South Bank. At the time, I was getting married as well, and so Dartmoor seemed a big change, and so I decided that I would do [the teaching job]. It was a polytechnic, very much like the universities here now: very much a technical kind of university, producing degrees and qualifications for people who were doing British Computer Society exams. It had Stage One, which was pretty basic computer science, and also Stage Two, which tended to be very specialist. South Bank was happy for me to be studying at the same time, so that’s when I did my master’s. And again, they paid for it; as long as I could manage to fit lectures and things in, it was fine. And that’s when I did options in systems analysis and databases; and then there were the standard programming courses, like ALGOL; and I did some things on decision tables. So that was interesting; that degree was very interesting.

Abbate:

What sort of computers did they have at South Bank?

Warner:

I can’t remember.

Abbate:

Were they time-sharing at that point?

Warner:

They were . . . I mean, I remember the Birkbeck machines were time-sharing. I remember we did something with traffic lights, where you’d turn the lights on and off and things; and we also used ATLAS. Just going back even to the ICL days, we would design in shared data—for example, print routines: we were setting those up so that they could be parameterized.

I mentioned the person who had languages: she and I did quite a lot of suite testing—testing interfaces between programs—and that was when I first met the concept of decision tables. Because we were in a big open office with a person who’s responsible for us, and they had to fill in these job sheets and say whether the program was working or not working. We were cutting code for customers, and I got into reasonably serious trouble, because I’d had two or three runs after I’d said it was working. It was working, but it wasn’t very neat code, so I played around with the code. After that, I wasn’t allowed to play around with the code! There were all these interesting other things that Big White Chief was getting us involved in, and the suite testing was one; you needed somebody who was outside the system, who could analyze the system and work out what was happening. We all tested programs, but we didn’t always check how we worked together. And of course, the decision tables: he wanted a briefing on that

Details on Decision Tables

Abbate:

Now, tell me about decision tables. I don’t remember what they are.

Warner:

At the simplest level, they’re just a table which could help any kind of decision-making. We still have decision tables. If we were talking about a decision-support system and looking at the way users might analyze it, we could think of drawing a table up and thinking about the priority of decisions. If you want to buy a car—a second-hand car—one of the most important decisions would be its price: greater than $9000 pounds or less than. And according to the build-up of decisions, you can then look at the actions.

Abbate:

It’s almost like a flow chart, but in a different form?

Warner:

Yes, but it hasn’t got the sequencing of the flow chart. It’s non-sequenced; it’s just the decisions you’d make, and the combination would give you actions. There’s software around—well, there was software around—that one could use. So it was a case of saying, “We are going to look at all the possibilities of ‘yes’ or ‘no’—greater than £9000 or less than £9000, say; and then the next run could be something to do about color, and there could be a variety of different things. So for every ‘yes’ you have a variety of different combinations; for every ‘no’ you’d have a variety of combinations; and so it would multiply. You could use that to test the possibilities. If you were doing something like we were doing, suite testing, you could use the decision table to say, “Well, have I thought about all the possibilities that could possibly occur?” Some you might be able to automatically reject, and some you might say are the only ones you need to consider, but you’d be certain that you’d exhausted the possibilities through using those decision tables.

In my M.Sc., in some ways it was a similar sequence, because in my project, what I was looking at was the data going through a system, using matrices to check whether all combinations had been considered. And I was using a new (for me) programming language, APL. It was very mathematical, and I was talking about whether it was complete. And sometimes—are you mathematical?

Abbate:

Only slightly!

Warner:

You’re happy with the [description of the] possibilities, yes? Now, sometimes there wouldn’t be any entries in that. So if you think of storing it in the computer, and if you had to store all that stuff even where there weren’t any entries, you would be wasting a lot of space—because what you’d like to do is to say, “All right, where you don’t have an entry, you just want to collapse it down, and only store where the entries are.” So that’s why that programming language was quite nice, because it was a mathematical language, and it would deal with these matrix structures.

Looking right the way forward to now, there are techniques used in warehousing where they’re storing data, and they’re talking about cubes of data—lots of different cubes of data—so there’s a similar concept. If there aren’t entries in all the little tiny cubes that are building up to the big one, then you’re wasting space; and though space isn’t as important these days, it is when you’re talking about the big volumes of data, the gigabytes of data, that one wants to hold in a warehouse. I suppose these kinds of products were coming on the market about fifteen years ago—and one of the differentiators then was whether they had understood that you could, mathematically, condense this data.

I was looking at analysis and how data should be valued all the way through, as it went through the different processes which were applied to it, and whether one could draw these links through the data, and mathematically whether one could prove that they were correctly linked or not. It would have been nice to follow that up, but I didn’t. But the ideas which came out—I think, by looking back, I can [look at current products and] say, “Oh, yes! Still analysis,” and “Still something about decisions support. Yes, all right.” Knowing about sparse data meant that I understood very quickly some of the hardware constraints of some of these wonderful new products. I knew why some were good and some weren’t, and I could ask people what they did about this data that wasn’t contained there; so for me it was exciting to be able to see these things.

And the academic world is great; it’s nice to able to jump between the academic and the real world. Because in the real world, you have a company image—it might only be dress code, but it’s still: you are an ICL person, or a Reed person, or whatever else. In the academic world, there’s much more freedom to be much broader. There are constraints here [at Reed] on the kinds of software we need to look at: it’s partly price, but it’s partly track record and what’s gone before.

Abbate:

So you’re able to do both the more theoretical work and also applied things?

Warner:

Yes.

Abbate:

Was that also relevant to compression in data communications, this idea of the sparseness and not using the unused values?

Warner:

I would guess. I don’t know much about the communication; networking hasn’t really been an area [of mine]. It’s a bit the same with the hardware; I’ve been taught about it, and I understand it, and so when somebody explains things to me I can understand, but I haven’t really applied it in that area at all. But I would think that some of the compression is also giving flags—giving indicators of what would follow; I think that’s some of the network compression. [But] I don’t see why the other shouldn’t apply as well.

Abbate:

I’m just curious, because it sounded very broadly applicable.

Warner:

Yes, it does. I hadn’t even thought about it.

Abbate:

Have you had anything patented?

Warner:

No, I’m afraid not!

I see myself as a communicator; I think that’s my strength. I believe I can work quite quietly and concentrate for long periods of time, but I’m a communicator; I like working as part of a team.

Abbate:

That’s interesting. I think a lot of people—women especially—think of computing as this job where you’re going to be isolated in a room by yourself with a machine and never talk to anyone; but that doesn’t sound at all like your experience at all.

Warner:

Oh, no! It’s not. No, no. Being able to bridge the gap . . .

I went on to work at the Open University [from 1975 to 1977], and there I was employed as part of a data processing team, so I had systems to work on, and users. I was an analyst, and I worked in their data warehouse. They’re a mail-order university, and so the warehouse had things like equipment, and publications that needed to be sent out, so it’s a standard warehouse with things and all the rest of it. The kind of people who were responsible for different tasks there were very dismissive of a young analyst— particularly when I was female to start with!

Gender and Computer Science

Abbate:

Were there not a lot of women working there?

Warner:

They were, but it was much more shop-floor type, and I didn’t fit the mold. I mean, I found that elsewhere: sometimes in the U.K. there were managers’ dining rooms and there were workers’ dining rooms. In Russia, they found it very difficult to know where to put me, and I eventually landed up having my meals with some French engineers we’d got on site (it was useful that I actually could speak French)—because they were obviously engineers, who were rough and ready like our engineers, but they were also managers. My spoken French isn’t fantastic, but I could certainly hear the different accents—so I knew which table I had to go to! That was great, in Russia.

Abbate:

Were there any women doing computing in Russia?

Warner:

I don’t think so. In most East European countries—again, it’s my memory and recall—I don’t remember many women doing computing. I don’t remember that at all.

Abbate:

I wasn’t sure if that was part of their communist ideology or not.

Warner:

Yes, it should have been. It should have been, shouldn’t it? And I’m sure I would have remembered if there had been, because in this country . . . At the Open University we had a department which was about fifty-fifty, and it was really nice to work in that kind of department again. We’d have lunch together, and go to the pub, and things like that.

Time at Open University

Abbate:

So, you had gone from South Bank to the Open University.

Warner:

Yes.

Abbate:

Do you know Laurie Keller?

Warner:

Yes.

Abbate:

She’s actually the very first woman in the U.K. I talked to. I talked to her about a year ago, when I was thinking about starting this project.

Warner:

I see.

Abbate:

She’s the chair of the Open University’s computer science department now. Some time in the past year she had just become the chair.

Warner:

Excellent! That’s nice! [laughs]

Abbate:

Anyway, so you were at the warehouse. Now, why were you in the warehouse? You were working on computerizing it somehow?

Warner:

Yes. The Open University, all of the administration, was computerized. So the warehouse was run by a computer system. The admission of students: they applied, and all the students were entered into an admission system, and that’s what I also worked in: student admissions. They had assignments, and the exam process—because I then went on to the academic side as well—they were using computers to give support information on these large groups of students taking the courses. So if you’ve got 2000 students, when you’re thinking of their grading band, they would be giving you some statistical information about the kinds of grades which were permissible—the kind of grade band you could be looking at in your areas of discretion. They have a marking system for the assessments: these are marked by tutors all over the U.K., and although people had marking schemes, different tutors would mark to different severity; and so there would be a moderation process done by computer. They would look at the different gradings, and, assuming a normal distribution, they would be able to . . .

Abbate:

There was a sort of correction factor for each tutor?

Warner:

Yes: whether you mark really harshly or really softly. So I know [from the computer] I’m sort of in the middle, but towards the harsh end. But I’m probably not in that area anymore, because once you know that information, you say, “Hmm . . . “ [and make an adjustment]! [laughs.] But it gives you also a degree of knowledge about your own work. If you’re not really severe, you don’t have to do anything about it, but if you’re on that margin—if your marks are ever questioned by an external—you think, “I’m sure I will have retained that slight severity, so I’m sort of a median marker, and therefore my marks can be changed slightly—slightly up, but preferably not down.” And it has tended to be that way. People have said, “Oh, you’ve been a bit harsh here. Can we move your marks up?” “Oh, yes, that’s fine.”

So that was a good experience. And of course it was a different type of communication at the Open University: it was very much written communication; writing [course] modules. That was in the database area.

Warner:

So having done the systems stuff, I then joined the academic team in the Maths faculty, and I did the normal work of an academic. I taught maths summer schools, was course director in those summer schools; wrote modules; and we were doing database courses. So we were looking at CODASYL databases—it must be fifteen, twenty years ago—and then also the then-new area of relational databases. And [we were looking] not just at the technology: we were also looking at the analysis and the modeling, so we had to explain the modeling.

Then we were visiting organizations as potential case studies, and producing television programs as well. I met James Martin, an American author who lived in New York, and the television was a great attraction: he was interested in the BBC producing television programs for his use. Companies were very happy to cooperate with the prospect of having a television program. It was exciting for me; I had never done television programs. We worked with producers, developed a script together, and developed the kind of information that you wanted to get out. So if there was an interview with end users, that needed to be sewn together into the television story line, and then that formed a case study, and we would show the application of some of the things we were describing. We used them as case studies; they didn’t necessarily have to reflect the company information, and obviously there were issues of confidentiality. We would use the information and the ideas, rather than look at any detailed data—although some companies were quite happy for us to have the detailed data, so we could give detailed examples. Obviously names and addresses were changed, but one could use the context, and that made the teaching come to life.

For example, things like overseas containers . . .

Abbate:

How to pack them, you mean?

Warner:

Yes. We did our own model of the kinds of data which would need to be modeled local authorities, utility companies—and the television program gave the context; one could see the pictures. I had to learn how to do face-to-camera work. One thinks it’s so easy; you know, you see people with boards saying, “Take one, take two, take three”—but it wasn’t quite as easy as that! [laughs.] You thought you’d done it fantastically, and people fell around laughing, and you thought, “Well, what’s wrong?” And there would be all kinds of things happening in the background, but of course you couldn’t see it, because you were face-to-camera. Or there would be an aircraft fly over, and we’d have to have another take. So these are the sort of the stories you hear from television production. It was exciting, and a lot work for a twenty-minute program, but it really added value to the students. So for me, that was very much again a learning experience for how I would wish to communicate, and a case study where context became as important as actually being able to get the concepts across.

By that time I’d had a family; I’d got a young son and daughter. And then we moved down to London, so I had to look for a new job.

Abbate:

Were you living up near Milton Keynes?

Warner:

Yes, in a four hundred-year-old cottage. You’d love it! Oak beams and thatch, and an inglenook fireplace. It was in a village. We had a farm round us and a barn where the sheep had their lambs each year and jumped around the field next to our house, and then the farm house was on the other side of our property, so we were really surrounded by farmland.

Abbate:

Who was doing the farming?

Warner:

There was a farmer there still, but they’d chosen not to live in the four hundred-year-old cottage; they had a modern house. It was before our time that they’d made the change. So it was the original farmhouse.

Moving Back to London and Lecturing at Kingston

Abbate:

Why did you move to London?

Warner:

Because my husband had a job that he wanted to come to down here, which was a very good opportunity. So: no longer a four hundred-year-old cottage; [just] one of a number of houses! It’s a good family house, and a cottage would have been a hopeless family house, because you had all the echoes: you could hear what was happening downstairs; any conversation wasn’t private, and with the kids making noise, it would be quite difficult, I think, to live there. But very, very exciting at the time! [laughs.]

I continued to do television programs, particularly recording over, even when I’d just had my son. The television producer came to the old cottage and did a recording in the snow when I’d just had [my son] for less than six weeks. And then we needed something recorded on another program in the BBC studios in London, and my mum came down with me and looked after my son whilst I did my recording! [laughs.] So, lots of ways of [balancing work and family]. So I continued, part-time. I obviously had to take six weeks off, and we extended the time I could take off, but I would work part-time. Mum lived in Guildford still, where I’d grown up. There was a nursery at the Open University, and when Andrew was very little and I had to go in for meetings, there was a big grassy court, and he sat in his pram in the middle of the court—that was the early days, when he was very little, but as he grew up, he went to the nursery there. It’s on the site, and I could be called if I was needed.

So I went down to London, and it was really just looking to see what sort of jobs [were available]. There was a possibility of a research job at Surrey, and the lecturing job at Kingston; and I was lucky enough to get the lecturing job. I was a Principle Lecturer, and the appointment was to take over the undergraduate course as Course Director. It had been running for about three years, and the challenges were: There weren’t enough students who were registered—that was the first challenge—and so we had to get the numbers up. The first year we got the numbers right up, and that course didn’t look back. It was one of the first in this country on information systems, and the department was a small department, a specialized department of information systems, as opposed to computer science. Then when the head of school left, he recommended I should become Masters Course Director, and I’ve done this for quite a long time. Then I decided I’d had enough of playing politics! [laughs.] It was the influence of being able to be involved in university decisions: because with the Masters’ Program, the procedures that we wrote for course changes and things like that were taken on board by the head of quality, and became the first draft of the University Standards for Masters’ Courses and how they should be permitted to change. So it wasn’t really playing politics, but it was influencing and direction, and getting involved in some of the committees and some of the new education areas. [For example, the] CAT [Credit Accumulation and Transfer] scheme: giving credit accumulation for previous qualifications that hadn’t been already credited, and also for experiential credit, so if somebody’s been working in an organization, then they can get credit on some of the modules for the work they’ve done. The Masters’ course was very much directed at people who were in information systems already; they needed to have worked previously in information systems, and normally they were sponsored by their organization, so they came for one-week blocks. So once again, it’s the industry-academia link—and it’s great!

Abbate:

To go back just a bit: How did you get the numbers up when you first came and you wanted to raise enrollments? What was the plan?

Warner:

I had a very good course administrator, and one of the problems was that because information systems were so new, people weren’t registering for it, so we had low numbers when students are normally accepted on the course. So the administrator and I worked just about all summer, interviewing people who needed to understand what information systems was about. They might be computer scientists, or they might be business people—to me, information systems fits between the two. We weren’t training them to be computer scientists with another name; we were actually putting the emphasis on being able to understand what was happening in business and apply it through technology. And then just monitoring the people who were interested: making sure if they said they were interested, we kept a record of that; and we would keep going back to them to make sure whether they had changed their mind or not, or did they need to come in again and talk some more, once they’d understood? Of course, if they decided to go elsewhere, we kept a check of the numbers. So it was very much working at an individual basis with prospective students.

Abbate:

Were you trying to publicize it somehow? I don’t know what the options would be.

Warner:

It was too late really for that, because we were working after the students had put in their applications, and so it was really picking up students who had the ability and perhaps had had a change of direction. They might have thought they would like to do a language course, but hadn’t got the grades to go on that language course, and so suddenly they had to either go to another university that they didn’t want to go to, or they had to look at a different subject. At that time, it wasn’t controlled by having to put in applications. You had to do it after the event, when you’d made your mind up, but it was a case of them honoring their decisions and us honoring our decisions, so that they knew that if we said “yes,” then they would be accepted.

Abbate:

So you had a broad view of who might be appropriate for information systems and went out and recruited them from the applicants?

Warner:

Again, it goes back a long time. I didn’t have a concept that it was only people who could do maths and physics who were good at analysis and being able to use computers and understand the problems that computers could solve. I worked with somebody who’d read Italian—and if I’d had any preconceived ideas, that really taught me that you can’t label people by what they’ve done their degree in! She was certainly very competent, and we worked well together. And again with Jill Johnson: she wasn’t a mathematician, but she was extremely competent at the use of computers—and could foresee the possibilities, perhaps, faster than a techie could. So yes, I have no conceived ideas about what qualifications would be required for computing. It takes all backgrounds, I think.

=Gender Divisions in Current Computer Science

Abbate:

Did you get fairly high enrollments from women in the I.S. course? [Or was it mainly men?]

Warner:

Yes, I’m afraid so. It’s still very much a male-dominated area.

Abbate:

What sort of percentages were you getting?

Warner:

I suppose 15, 20 percent women, maximum. I did my fair share of promotion in the schools, and it’s still a concept that “computers aren’t for us,” even with it being a woman in technology. I did some promotion through that, and it was purely to the females in school, and they were so dismissive. “I’m going to be a hair dresser; what can I use a computer for?” You know. We’d spend a little time thinking about, “Well, what can we use a computer for?” “I don’t think computers are any good.” There was no way through to say to them, “Well, they’re just a tool, and they’d help you with [your business]; they’d ease it. If you could put things in once, you didn’t have to do an order every single week.”

Abbate:

That’s right: “How will you manage your hair dressing business?”

Warner:

That’s right.

So I was very saddened by that, because it was my experience. And I think there’s more stereotyping now than there was when I started.

Abbate:

Why do you think that is?

Warner:

I think probably it’s because when we started, there was no pre-conceived conception of who would be good at computing. It didn’t matter whether you had a degree or experience. It didn’t really matter whether you were male or female. You were in a new, emerging area, and because it was emerging, you were the trend-setters.

There weren’t barriers. You didn’t have to conform to a standard. I never felt, when we started, there was a male-female thing. There might have been once you were being promoted. But certainly ICL showed as much encouragement for educational opportunities [for women as for men], and at many of the interviews that I went to after that stage, they were more interested in my being able to manage my job and do a degree: Why did I do this, and how did I manage it? [laughs.] Periodically they’d say, “What about a family as well?” [and I’d reply,] “Well, yes, I expect I’ll manage that too at some stage.” [laughs.]

Abbate:

So you think the image of computing has changed?

Warner:

Because it’s everywhere now. It’s in organizations, and I think that the computing is only part of the organization; people in computing work the same hours [other employees]. We’ve just had a change of location here; we’re going to be moving to Raynes Park, just down the road, quite soon, and so the computing people worked over the weekend to set it up. The computers now don’t really fall to pieces—or the programs don’t fall to pieces—quite so often as they used to do when we started [laughs]; so one doesn’t have to recognize that the computing department have been in most of the last week working 24 hours a day, because they’re probably working the same number of hours. So now it’s the company norms, not the computing norms, I think.

Abbate:

Does that make it less appealing to women?

Warner:

I think probably it’s always only appealed to a small percentage of women, but I think now I see more stereotyping. There’s more stereotyping anyway—there seems to me to be a lot more stereotyping: “Women should be like this, and use these shampoos, but men should be like this, and use these products.”

Abbate:

So you think now that computing is more ubiquitous, the stereotypes are more visible?

Warner:

And it’s less about, “I’m a computing person” than “I’m a company person. I’m in the employment business, or I’m in the marketing section of this particular company.” I don’t see computing as an integrator.

=Changes in Teaching Content over Career

Abbate:

Hmm.

Now, what was the content of the information science course when you started, and has that changed a lot?

Warner:

I think the philosophy hasn’t changed. The content’s changed, because computers have changed; there could always be a database element, but what one taught in a database module would change with the times. I think at such a detailed level there was always a balance between the environment within computing, the technology of computing, and the business aspect that needs to be understood; and I think all those three elements would still be found in the course.

As a department, we are now no longer Information Systems. About six months or a year ago, Computing and Information Systems merged together. The degree is now for enormous numbers of students, and the first year is a combined first year. We still have two streams of degrees: information—or multimedia as well; information systems with multimedia—and the computer systems. But I think the economies of scale will change the nature of the degree much more than it has done over the last number of years. The detail of content’s changed, but not the detail of philosophy; and I think now we’ll see the philosophy change and will become much more technology-oriented.

Abbate:

Was it part of the program to place students in companies for internships or something?

Warner:

Yes, that was there right from the beginning. There’s some pressure now not to, because it takes a lot of time and effort, with the larger numbers, to get students suitably placed. You set up interviews, and students go for interviews, and some of the students don’t get placed; so there have to be safety nets for those students. But I think, as an academic, one sees the difference when they come back. First and second years, they’re just absorbing things, and when they come back, they’re able to critically appraise: everything’s not good, and there are emerging areas where it’s the same as it used to be. You have to evaluate; you can’t just take what you’re told, but you have to start evaluating and questioning.

It’ll be a matter of the grants, I think. As students’ grants become less, and they’re having to pay for that, they’re going to have to do more external work in order to pay their fees and see themselves through universities; and that will inevitably shorten the degree, and that will be the demise of things like industrial placements. I think it’s very sad, because it gives them an opportunity to work in an organization, which means that when they have done their degree, they’re in a much better place to stick out for what they really want to do. They’ve got some experience with companies. I’ve seen this with really good students who’ve had some very good placements: they’re not going to go for the first job. There are two in my mind whom I know very well, and neither of them accepted a job until about October. Summer period was a bit flat; they went for lots of interviews, found out about different jobs, but they were very selective in the jobs that they took, and they got very good jobs—excellent jobs!

Working at Reed

Abbate:

How did you end up at Reed?

Warner:

[laughs.] Well, when I stopped being Course Director: I was teaching, but most of my time and energy went into managing, and what I wanted to do was to do some solid learning in some of the emerging technologies. So I said that that’s what I wanted to do. The two areas which I’ve been involved in: [one was] the data warehousing, which I did partly through the teaching of my modules, particularly in the master’s program, [where] we talked about how data warehousing fitted on top of databases; I was also teaching a decision support module, and there I looked much more at the business aspects of data warehousing. Because there was a funding though students and organizations, we could bring in external consultants onto these modules, so that developed a network of consultants and organizations.

Then eventually I decided that it was about time I did some teaching, and so I did an O.U. [course]. There were no books around when I first did it, and there weren’t even chapters in database books, and so I had to do my slides, and I did a brief write-up. I did it first of all to [inaudible] a database module, and I also three weeks later was teaching a database module for MEd students, the Masters [of Education] students. They were the kinds of occasions where the students are sitting there watching you, and nodding their heads—and I had a really bad cold as well; I felt awful, I had a temperature—but I could feel that they were really enjoying it, and I was really enjoying it! It was like the old days, when one talked to small numbers of students, and you went in with just a page of headings, and you drew them out.

So that was a really good experience for me, and so I decided I’d do a little bit more, and I developed some case studies, and I started being selective about placements I went to. Reed’s been special always. Once I stopped being Course Director, I started picking up industrial placement visits again, and I started doing it particularly in the area that I wanted to find out more about. It wasn’t quite as calculated as that, but that was an interest, and I wanted to know more about it, and of course I enjoy talking to the managers and consultants and things. I went to a telecommunications company, and they had an external consultant, and I picked his brains to find out about some of the questions I have. It all sounds brilliant, and then you start looking, and you think, “Hey . . . .” And I was lucky. I got some of our students placed in a small start-up company that’s part of the business intelligence software—a big organization now. The contact was through the director of that small company, who actually came to talk in a mid-unit, and whilst he was there I said, “Well, you know, if you’re a small company, you might benefit from having some of our undergraduates!” And that’s been a nice link, because I used to go in, and he used to come in and talk at university, and it was a nice circle that developed. Then the students came back, and when I was teaching the warehousing in fourth year, instead of it being just me telling people about new subjects, the students would say, “Ah, yes, but have you thought about so-and-so? I think it should be this way.” So we could start doing the real academic thing of getting a debate going.

Abbate:

Because they’d encountered that during their placement?

Warner:

They’d encountered it, yes. So some were really quite expert in the area. We had some of the software, but it was quite difficult, because unless I spent a lot of time maintaining it . . . The student, when he was in his final year, demonstrated it to other students; and the year after, when somebody else went back on placement, they said, “The demonstration and discussion was really good, but these are complex software products, and unless I’m totally up-to-date with them—unless the students were really prepared to put quite a bit of time—the learning curve is quite high for people to understand them.”

The other area I developed was the object-oriented area, so it’s a much more technical area. It’s object-oriented analysis and design, so I’ve got the interesting second-year course running on that. I thought that maybe companies would be doing enough on it, but I didn’t feel that the analysis was moving into the coding—it was object-oriented coding as well. So in some ways that wasn’t a suitable area to go out into an organization. So I developed those areas, and then I applied to the Royal Academy of Engineering—it was through my new head of department—and I said, “What I really want is to go out and do something. I want to work for an organization; I need that now. I used to have it, and I don’t have the practical experience.” And he suggested that [RAE] was a good organization to go to, and then I had to decide which organization [to work for]—and Reed was the first choice, really because of the people here. I felt that after I’d been in the academic world for such a long time, I might not fit in—and, you know, getting a bit older, and that might not be appropriate! [laughs.] But I’d seen students come back and work here one day a week, and they offered them jobs at the end, and so I thought there weren’t going to be too strait-jacketed about who they would like to work with. And also, even just looking around here, there’s quite a mix—a lot of very young people, but they’re also some little grey hairs around! [laughs.] And I’d met quite a few of the managers, and I’m pleased that I came to an organization where I did know people; it made the first couple of weeks very easy. The ex-student I mentioned: she was very good. She’s on the warehousing team, and she sits next to me now, and I can still ask my silly questions and she’ll help me. The line manager is somebody I’d met maybe three years ago. The person who looks after the database administrators: I’d met him on a couple of occasions, with different students; we’d met in meetings, and that was good. It was good to know those people, and it was good there were some students who were are going back to Kingston next year.

What was needed in the application [to the RAE] was support from my head of department [and] support from Reed. In my normal way, I’d got all the information, [but] it wasn’t till the person responsible for the grant said, “Now, come on, I want you to do it by such-and-such a date!” I found Anita, whom you’ve met just now, and she said, “Right, I will take it on board and I’ll get the IT director to write it. How about coming down here and we’ll talk about the content of the letter?” And somebody at Kingston had already showed me the kind of thing he had done for his application, and I got nothing but support from Kingston University, and from my colleagues as well. Obviously they’ve picked up some of the [teaching] load: they shouldn’t have done, because I’ve been bought out, but they have done.

Abbate:

You needed to get money from the Academy of Engineering to cover your courses while you were away?

Warner:

That’s right; they could buy somebody in.

Abbate:

So does that mean that Reed does not pay you?

Warner:

Reed doesn’t pay.

Details of Time at Reed

Abbate:

Do you have a research position here? What is your position here?

Warner:

That’s quite interesting! [laughs.] I’m part of a team—and the academic work, the knowledge of influencing without actually necessarily having the status, has been brilliant. Because putting in a warehouse project into an organization: Reed is big, but it’s not like a banking organization; it’s not a giant; so it’s a large cost expenditure [for them]. So in terms of a system, the users are at director level, and so it’s been the influence of being able to move things forward. The IT team are part of the sponsor’s team—one of the sponsors is the IT director. So initially I was called a Database Consultant. We’re using a particular methodology where people have titles, and sponsors, and ambassador users—the ones who move things into the organization—and so it’s interesting being involved in the methodology.

Abbate:

So you’re helping to design this system?

Warner:

I’m helping to design the system, yes. And initially it’s justifying it, working out what suppliers are appropriate, inviting suppliers in, finding out about the product, working out how we can evaluate, whether we need more information, trying to get some costings from the different suppliers. “Data warehouse consultant” is what [I call myself]. When we go around the table and have to introduce ourselves, there’s a pause, and then I say, “Data Warehouse Consultant.” I mean, there’s been discussion in the team as to the role I’m actually playing, as opposed to my title role.

Abbate:

Which is nicely vague! You could be doing anything.

Warner:

[laughs.] That’s right!

Abbate:

How long have you been here?

Warner:

I started in February. I did a few courses in January. It’s five months, and I’m about three months in, and I’ve got two more months to go.

Abbate:

And then back to teaching?

Warner:

Yes. I’d hoped to be doing the warehouse module next semester: there’s one of my colleagues who’s doing some consultancy in warehousing, and we hatched up that we could manage, with both of us being involved in it, a new module for fourth year. But having written a syllabus, I’ve been told that it’s probably a bit too late for next year—they need to go through the formality of doing it—so we’ll just have to see. I don’t know what Reed might do. It would be nice to keep a finger in the pie! [laughs.] I’d like the two hats, but I don’t want to wear them simultaneously. One after the other’s fine, but I think if I’d been trying to hold down any teaching, I would have found it a bit frustrating—although, having said that, sometimes, here, I’m thinking, “I would quite like to go back and do a bit of teaching now. This is really interesting.” But it would be the deadlines; the teaching deadlines would always fall [at awkward times]; and we’re sometimes exhausted just trying to set things up. When we got the suppliers in, we had a brief for them: we had a requirement that we wanted them to satisfy, and we gave them some test data so that they could demonstrate their product on our data, and then we had the data organized. We had four suppliers, and one consultancy, so five different organizations coming in, and a team of director level to evaluate—and the small group of us in IT, we were really tired after Friday. It was a long day; and on Monday, we were all really quite droopy! It seems to take so much emotional energy. I felt really low, and then I talked to Mai [sp] and Carmen—the three of us worked closest together on it, and they will be here next year as well—and I found that they were feeling just the same: really, really tired and flat! No [energy to ask], “What do we need to do next?” and “What’s our direction next?”

Balancing Work and Family Responsibilities

Abbate:

How difficult have you found it to balance work and family responsibilities?

Warner:

I don’t think I could have worked in an organization like this, with stricter hours than the academic world has. I think I’ve worked, in the academic world, longer hours than I see other people working here, but I’ve had more freedom. And in the early days, I had somebody to help. When we first came down here, I had a nanny, and our kids loved her, and she was wonderful. She was really brilliant, a really good friend. And then as they got older, it was part-time. But the academic world has given me . . .


Warner:

I suppose, if I’m fair, [I should mention] also that in the position I was in, there was usually a course administrator and an admin person who would be taking my calls and knowing where I was—I mean, that was necessary for the job. My Filofax used to have home commitments and work commitments all together, so that at one time I was just photocopying my Filofax so that they had a record, so that they [knew which] were days when they could put me. So there was always somebody at the end of a phone, so if one of the children was ill, or there was a problem at school, there was always somebody who would take the message and judge whether it was urgent or not. I think the academic world is geared up to understanding human problems, and so I think there was always that support there. I guess some organizations would have that as well . . . Well, maybe! [laughs.]

But at the Open University there was a crèche, so I was close to them when they were little, and I’ve always worked very close to home, so it’s been a quarter of an hour [commute], probably. I think I learned that when I was at the Open University. I was in London, and my car broke down on the motorway. I wasn’t allowed to leave my car on the motorway to go pick up our son from the crèche, I didn’t have a phone with me, and the police wouldn’t let me go off the motorway; and so I had to wait until my car was towed, and then I went to collect my son from the nursery, and he was distressed. But it was an Open University nursery, so they waited for me. That was my first and last real experience of what I felt was real disaster—because I was devastated. I was really stressed out, because what if they’d just left him there? And other friends with children, we would do the Bolton Races: if one was going out, there would always be somebody who would know that I was going down into London—and if I weren’t back by such-and-such a time, would they check back? And I’d know where to find the kids if necessary. I think it’s just planning, but there’s always somebody else who can double for you, because you’re not infallible. And transport’s not infallible! [laughs.]

But I suppose there is [a trade-off]. Whereas I would have been much more spontaneous about doing things, particularly in the ICL days, with the family it needed to be planned, and I guess I didn’t do as much. I haven’t traveled around as much. I talked to one of the professors when I was first at the Open University, and we talked about me doing Ph.D. research, going to conferences, visiting; and he just said, “If you want to do that, you’re going to be traveling around Europe and the States. It’s not worthwhile unless you can devote the time to that. And you’ve got a family. Is that your choice, that you want to leave your family in England whilst you do the European circuit of conferences?” He said, “It’s no good doing the U.K. ones; they won’t give you any credibility.” [So I didn’t end up pursuing the Ph.D.] I mean, I’ve managed the odd [trip]. I had a validation in Hong Kong, which was brilliant. My sister lives in Australia, so that tied up nicely. I’ve been very selective about where I’ve gone, and things like that. But that advice was good—for me, with a family. I think the choice of being in academic administration’s the right one. I think I would really have enjoyed doing the research and conferencing; I think I’d have enjoyed that very much—but I wanted to do both, and so a compromise had to be made, and I don’t regret it. I’ve got two wonderful children. Well, I can’t call them children; they’re young adults now.

Abbate:

Do either of them do computing?

Warner:

They’re both competent in computing. Our son always seems to have had a computer; he always seems to be the one who can sort out problems; but he didn’t want to do a computing degree. Our daughter had dyslexia; and of course the computer knew everything, it would correct her spellings, but quite early on it told her— her name’s Sally, and it told her she’d spelled it incorrectly! [laughs.] Of course she hadn’t, and so she treats computers in a way that I think we should all treat computers: it’s really good for things it’s good at, but it doesn’t get everything right! [laughs.] It’s like the telephone: if she wants to find something out, she’ll use the Web. If I decide that I’d like to do a standard letter—because I look after my dad’s finances now, so I might want to do the standard mailing—she’s the one who sits down and decides how to do the mail merge, and bang-bang-bang-bang, it’s done! So she would say computers are pretty useless, but she just uses them as part of the environment she lives in, just takes them for granted. Andrew loves gaming and uses lots of gaming software. He’s got all the standard software as well. When he was doing his degree, a presentation of his report was excellent: he’d brought in graphical information, and it was correctly sized, and they’d taken photographs, and they were included as well. They’re both competent, but they didn’t want to do it for a career.

Abbate:

What does your husband do?

Warner:

He’s a consultant in the environmental area. So, a techie; scientific. Water clean-up. But a bit more than that now, because he’s also in legal aspects of company acquisitions, things like that. It’s anything to do with the environment; it could be nuclear areas—nuclear waste and things—and his first area was water, so it’s contaminated water as well. The acquisitions involve sites: Are they sufficiently clean? And, more recently, legal application as well: how the different companies have to work together and sort out compensation or whatever else. I don’t understand much about that, and obviously I don’t know a lot about it, because I shouldn’t know a lot about it! [laughs.]

Mentors and Satisfaction of Career

Abbate:

Have you had role models or mentors who have helped you out along the way?

Warner:

Oh, I think so. I’d say Jill [Johnson] was a great person in directing me. In ICL, too, there have been people who have helped me achieve things, and encouraged me along the way. Sometimes there have been gaps, particularly when the children were young and I didn’t go to many conferences; and then I picked up with people, and [got] advice, and checking that everything’s going well. And then at Birkbeck, Peter King; he was the professor when I did my degrees. When I wanted to do my first degree. . . I’ve said I tend to think a long time, and then I go for it right at the end. The course started in October, and it was in the summer that I went to him and said, “Yes, that’s what I really want to do!” [laughs.] And it happened. So Peter King—well, I’ve seen him at conferences, and I’ve asked him for advice, and he’s written references for me.

Abbate:

What have you found to be the most satisfying aspects of working with computers?

Warner:

The flexibility. And it does change; it changes very rapidly. I worked on a British Computer Society working party quite early, and I made some really good friends there, and I remember one of them saying, “If you’re still teaching or working in the same area as you did five years ago, you’re out of date!” [laughs.] So the most satisfying thing, I think, is that knowledge. Very early in my career, I knew what I was in for: it was always going to be changing, and when the kind of thing one was teaching or thinking about was seven years out of date, it was time for a change.

And yet, having said that, the ways of doing things don’t change that much. Even if I was programming at assembler level, you needed a program to communicate; and obviously in COBOL, when one was writing little subroutines, other people needed to pick it up—and even if other people weren’t going to, you needed to pick it up yourself! So you learned that if you did it in a structured, methodical way, then you would be able to follow things through. So the deep lessons that I learned years ago [still apply]—testing, making sure the bits integrated together; [because] you’d get the core of it okay, but the problems would happen in how you connected it together. Although the technology changes, some of these fundamental things don’t change, and one of the things coming back here I’ve learned is: yes, the technology’s changed, but the know-how persists over time; the method of approach. So for me, in computing there is a level of stability, and that’s the skills, the way you approach problems. Nobody can replace the years of knowledge you’ve got, so you’ve always got something valuable to contribute. But it’s not static: it won’t stand still, and it’s no good trying to apply it in the same way; it needs to be applied in a new way.

And there are always new things to learn about. Even now, people can’t really claim to be the expert—because even with years of experience, you’re not necessarily an expert; there will be somebody else who knows a lot more about the detail, and they could have only been working in computing for six months. So you’ve still got people who listen. In the computing world, you need to talk to people and find out how their expertise can contribute to the way you do things. The computing people are still a community, and you need to share ideas. I think it’s a brilliant career to be in; but you’ve got to keep alive; you’ve got to keep talking to young and old. Now, the young people: I’m learning so much here! We have a very young team, and I’m learning a lot. I got a compliment the other day: One of them said, “I don’t mind going to this half-day seminar, but why don’t you come too?” And I thought, “That’s brilliant! Yes, we’d have a good laugh!” The only way to cope with some of these seminars is that two of you go, and you laugh at the bits which are boring and enjoy the bits which are good! [laughs.]

Abbate:

How do you think the field of computing has changed since you started?

Warner:

It’s much more accessible now. I think there used to be gurus. If you were really, really knowledgeable, you could know just about everything there was to know about computing. I think these days there are a lot of people who think they know a lot about it, and it’s much wider—a lot more people know about computers and can do things on a PC. I think that’s why it is spread in organizations: the software is much easier to use.

How has it changed? I don’t think it’s quite so exciting. You don’t have the challenge of being able to make it work, and having to sort out how to get the technology to work, because I think when technology doesn’t work [today], it’s normally human error. And the challenges are to actually make it work for people now, within organizations, to meet objectives. It’s like the telephone system now—but it needs to be as inconspicuous as the telephone system: it’s just there; it’s just working in the background. I don’t think we’ve quite reached that level yet.

Final Thoughts

Abbate:

Do you have any advice for young women contemplating a career in computing?

Warner:

I think to keep both sides going, as long as they can: the practice and the academic side. You’ve got the “learning organization” now, and Reed is excellent at encouraging people to attend external courses, to do study—and it doesn’t need to be academic work; if they want a degree, that’s fine. but it’s just making sure that they’re reading around the subject. As I say, I’ve really enjoyed being here, because Reed appreciate the academic side too. I’ve been able to get a report from a computing group, and that’s disappeared from my desk—well, no, I gave it to somebody else and it disappeared from their desk, and it’s gone round—so that people are reading it, and that’s nice. When I first started, some of the team didn’t know much about data warehousing at all, and they asked, “Is there something we can read?” And they went away, read, and then we talked about it. So Reed is very much the kind of environment where people are expected to find out. Once we start using the software, we may or may not have a consultant to help us; the feeling is, we’ll probably have to read about it, and then try it for ourselves. The inquiring mind; that’s great! The IT Director: because I was writing that syllabus, I asked for an inspection copy of a book, and the IT Director said, “Oh, that was good; I hope you’ll let us all read that as well!” [laughs.] You know, that’s nice! [laughs.] Just keeping up with the reading and finding out for oneself, as well as doing.

I think Reed is brilliant—and maybe there are other organizations who encourage that approach as well—but it’s been nice for me, because the academic side has been appreciated. I don’t know how I’m going to cope with going back into education! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Can you do this again, in a couple of years?

Warner:

I can’t do a grant; I’ll have to work something else out. Maybe this should be off the record . . .

Abbate:

OK.

[recording pauses]

Abbate:

So when you came to Reed, they had you take these DSDM [Dynamic Systems Development Method] courses so that you could get the rest of the team up to speed?

Warner:

Yes, and it was a nice way in to the team, because they were tailored courses for Reed. The first one was an introductory one, and there I met some of the senior management. It was quite a big course. I met the one of the finance directors, and I also met Tom Miller, who’s M.D. [Managing Director] of IT Connections, and many, many users. It was interesting to hear their perception, and to hear what they thought about how IT and users worked together. So my first day was really attending a course with these people. Then, about a week later, we had a longer course, an in-depth course; that was quite small, and it was mostly the team who are here. So there’s Carmen; and a graduate trainee who will be here certainly until June; and somebody who at that stage wasn’t on the team, who had done web design, and since then he’s become our web person on the project. The project’s called “Mack,” so he’s on the Mack team. In DSDM, one of the things is to establish the people who are being involved very early on; so we have our sponsors; the ambassador-users, who are the directors; and advisor-users, who are the people who do more day-to-day checking-out of the system; and then there’s the IT group as well, so we’ve each got our own titles. And we’re very much trying to teach this methodology, so that’s a spin-off; it’s something totally new for me. We do teach DSDM.

Abbate:

Who teaches the courses? Is that in-house?

Warner:

This was an external person, who’s trained in DSDM. One can get DSDM training through writing a report of one’s experience with DSDM. I think it’s British Computer Society give qualification as a practitioner. So that could be another option for next year! [laughs.]

Abbate:

That’s right! [laughs.]

Warner:

But certainly I’m going back to help on the DSDM course. I was told before I came here, once they heard I was doing this—we teach it, but none of us have any experience of doing it in practice. Of course, for this warehousing project, I’ve got lots of experience; and I’ve got lots of areas where I think [sounding skeptical], “Hmm, well . . .” [laughs.] I think it’s quite difficult; we should be empowered to make the decisions, but when it’s a project that’s potentially with as much impact as the data warehousing project has, and the spend is so great, it’s a senior management decision. It’s not just like buying another bit of software for your PC to do a prototype; these are major costings. It’s a completely different arena that I’m getting experience of now. When one looks at a product, one evaluates it technically, and for its usability for end users. But suddenly, here, it’s in a corporate scenario. The suppliers have a relationship with Reed Corporation (which is made up of about five different organizations within the Reed group), and I’ve learnt that the computing arena doesn’t have a standard way of licensing products; so if you’re going to one supplier, the costing will be different to another supplier. There’s no uniformity in the computing industry. So, [for example,] a piece of paper: you see a cost, and then one needs to work out the implications of that. Is it really very expensive, because you’ve got lots of different copies, or is that a once-off cost? It’s interesting.

Abbate:

So you have to keep all the economic and organizational considerations in mind as well as the technical?

Warner:

Yes. This is one thing we have been teaching on the course: that it’s knowledge of the business, as much as knowledge of the technology, that really counts. I’d hoped that this project would go a lot faster—that I’d have something really tangible, and we’d have a prototype up and running at the end of it—but it’s almost like seeing the layers of an onion unveiling themselves! I don’t know that I’m ever going to see my prototype, which was my ultimate goal. There seem to be all these other hurdles, which I don’t know much about—but I suppose, really, the gain that I’ve got here is that I now understand these other hurdles. I do know what they’re about. I’d always been aware of the impact of organizational problems and issues. When I taught in Russia, when I was with ICL, I was very much aware that people were asking me questions because of the company and the political environment. So I was very much aware of the business scene, and it’s been really fascinating—although frustrating at times! [laughs]—to see all these different aspects of it. [For example], this costing: Why can’t they all have a standard costing? It would make my life a lot easier; I could compare one against the other!

Abbate:

But hopefully not as bad as Soviet Russia! [laughs.]

Warner:

[laughs.] Oh yes! There it was very much a political thing, and this is much more of a business thing and a financial thing. I can do my best shot here, but my feeling is, we’ll be doing this project in the financial area, so if we’re doing it for financial directors, they should be well aware of financial issues and the implications. I might be aware of the software and the variability in costing, but they should really know what sort of thing is necessary to think about. I don’t know when they should be paying what part of the bill; if we buy something next year rather than this year, then obviously, even though the price is the same, it doesn’t cost the company as much. I guess they can do that much better than I can! But it’s interesting to see it happening.

Abbate:

So, thank you for the interview! [laughs]

Warner:

Right!