Are you there Mabel? Tech & The Art of Aging

There’s this thing about tech, you need to keep up…

When I was a much younger data whisperer, I worked for an e-tailer, so most of my pay packet went into buying the latest gadgets. I was up for bashing Twitter till I figured out what it was for and I jumped feet first into the whole smartphone shenanigans with enthusiasm and bucket loads of curiousity.

Lately, as I approach my 40th year, despite spending over half my lifetime in Tech, I’m feeling a sense of comfort with the staus quo. Nope, I don’t snapchat, I hardly instagram and I’ve never, ever swiped for a date.

"i saw you on tinder" Trastevere 2014 by Denis Bocquet
“i saw you on tinder” Trastevere 2014 by Denis Bocquet is licensed under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

It used to be that as defacto tech support for the OAPs in my life, I struggled for patience. I barely restrained the eye rolls at timidity  when it came to tech. I never really knew how to explain the love, concern, fear and hope I have for Tech and its myriad of products. I’m still a little irritated when old dears say “Oh you must be so clever to do that”. Not that I’m not clever, I don’t think you necessarily need to be clever to have digital skills. What I think you need are a healthy dose of curiousity, a dash of tenacity and a smidge of devil-may-care for making mistakes.

Dexter's Lab © Genndy Tartakovsky / Cartoon Network
Dexter’s Lab © Genndy Tartakovsky / Cartoon Network

It occurrred to me that I just wasn’t speaking their language. I knew deep down I didn’t understand how some older folks saw newer tech. It took one incident to really drive that home.

On a cold, autumn evening in 2014, Arriva Yorkshire’s announced bus timetable change landed. Not world ending you might think but the OAPs on my street were up in arms: Confusion abounded! Even the bus drivers were getting the new route wrong! All was not lost, the brave ladies who shared my route took matters into their own hands – they set up a social media page.

From my spot at the back of the bus, I listened in amusement as I learnt something new.

Firstly, they didn’t talk about tech like I do. Sure, this may be a geographical or life experience thing but what struck me was the conversation was like all their conversation (what can I say, bus journeys can be boring!). It went a little like this:

“So, what you do is, you go onto this website and put your details in. Then you say, ‘Are you there Mabel?’ and if she is, she’ll say hello.”

No “log in”, no “type”, heck, barely any tech terms.


Jargon via
Jargon via

As if to drive the point home, a few months later I was on a train (this happens more than you’d think). Someone had barely missed being hit on a track and delays were inevitable. The silver-haired lady next to me tried and failed to send a text, so she called instead. Getting an answerphone messsage, she said:

“I’ve sent you an electronic message”

No “text”, not even a “message” but a very preceise “electronic message”.

This made my day. My point here isn’t that their terms are right or wrong, simply that they are. Could my newfound understanding of the language barrier help the OAPs in my life ignite, well, not a passion but perhaps less of an aversion to all things digital?

So what if I started this quest from a self-centered point of view? My own sense of loss of being at the cutting edge of tech was the trigger, but Mabel and her friends planted a seed of curiousity that blossomed into conversation and a renewed passion for “Tech for everyone”.

In April, I began my project “Are you there Mabel?”. Every month or so, I’ll be talkng to OAPs about tech, how they feel about it and what it was like in the analogue day. The intention isn’t to convert them to tech fiends but to tell the story of new tech with old words, to connect the dots between their experience in which they’re comfortable and the alien Tech world they may feel excluded from.

Aged by Ronnie
Aged by Ronnie is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

Tech is for everyone and we can learn so much from people who’ve lived through things you only ever read about. People who have a deep life experience to share with us only we reach out and include them.

header image: Aged by Ronnie

5 Tips From Wakefield Business Week: Thriving in the Northern Powerhouse

As a small business owner in Wakefield, a city in the Leeds city region, I was keen to get as much as possible out of the Wakefield Business Week.

Today’s F5 (Refresh) Your Digital & Creative Skills was on point. It hit the sweet spot between appealing to non-technical small and medium business owners and advocating for productivity the tech and digital sectors offer.

Here’s 5 tips to help business owners thrive in the Northern Powerhouse:

1. Collaborate
From large organisations like Google, Microsoft and BT to regional influencers like the LEP, White Rose credit union and locals like Wakefield Council and Cognitiv, there’s an abundant opportunity to collaborate and grow.

Councillor Jack Hemingway, made it clear that Wakefield Council’s business support team were ready and willing to help businesses in Wakefield thrive.
Tip: Don’t go it alone, collaborate.

2. Go Local
Wakefield has a wealth of digital and creative companies that end up working outside the region. By getting in touch with a membership organisation like Cognitiv, you get access to expertise on your doorstep. From next month, the last Friday of the month will be a casual breakfast drop-in at Unity Works. Who know who’ll you meet?

Dan Conboy of Cognitiv laid out the pillars of their mission o make Wakefield a thriving place for small and medium enterprises: Collaboration, Promotion, Representation. These, along with promoting Code Club, digital literacy and facing common challenges like skills and training, make Cognitiv a valuable addition to Wakefield.
Tip: Go local for great talent.

3. Think about the Cloud
Could the cloud and related technology help your business innovate and grow? Daniel Langton of Microsoft showed it’s not rocket science to transform your business, no matter it’s size, with technology.

Think about your vision for your business, are you:

  • Paying too much?
  • Working effectively?
  • Trapping business insights in legacy tools or paper?
  • Communicating quickly and effectively?
  • Giving clients and employees what they want?
  • Over or under covered for information security?

Tip: Think about how technology could help your business thrive.

4. Be Mobile Friendly
Google is the de-facto platform for search and mobile is now overtaking desktops and laptops. To thrive, you need a website that tells your story and sells your brand. More than that, your website needs to be mobile friendly to rocket up Google’s ranking.

Abbey from the Google digital garage covered a number of free tools for business that can help with everything search-related including SEO – search engine optimisation, SEM – search engine marketing and more. See Google’s business page for more.
Tip: Make yourself easy to find, especially on mobile devices.

5. Eat the Free Lunch
At the end of the talks, a trio of organisations: the LEP, Tech Partnership and Leeds Beckett University urged small businesses to take advantage of funding for training. This one is a no-brainer for any business that needs to improve their skills to grow.

Both the LEP and Tech Partnership will fund up to 50% (with some additional criteria) and Leeds Beckett University introduced a number of other organisations that can help with funding, research, training and more.
Tip: Fund your skills and grow, the money is out there.

What Next?
Firstly, a huge “thank you” to Wakefield First for organising the free event. I learned a lot and met several talented and lovely local people. Next for my small business? I’ll be joining Cognitiv, popping into for a free consultation at Google Garage Leeds and taking advantage of the Wakefield Business Week. See you at the next breakfast meeting?

Header Image: WakefieldFirst logo

Bursting out of the data bubble

Knowledge for everyone? Only if we brave communities outside our own


Seifenblase (Bulle de Savon, Soap Bubble) by Photo Clinique

Is your professional community your comfort zone? When was the last time you went outside it?

These questions and more have nagged at me for a few years. As a developer, project manager and all round data person, I was struck by how little my fellow “techies” understood. Not technology or how to do their jobs but how few really understood the businesses they worked in.

This will be a familiar story to anyone who’s worked a development role in certain types of organisations: Manager decide something needs to be done. They talk to business analyst who creates a spec. Who talks to systems analyst who create another spec. Who hands it over to project manager who gets a high level estimate, maybe from a tech team leader. Who parcels out the work.

This “Chinese whispers” method was how I go most of my work when I started out. It was no wonder tensions ran high when the people actually doing the job came to do a user acceptance test and declared: “No, doesn’t work”.

Agile was meant to change all that.

How? By bringing the people with the need in contact with the people with the skills. For this to work, you do need to speak enough of the same language. That means you need some understanding of how the business works and they need some understanding of  how the technology works.

What motivates the people you’re working with? What do they actually mean when they say “x”? Are you actually developing “y”? How realistic are their expectations? How realistic are yours?

To be fair, this isn’t limited to tech. Breaking down silos in any institution means playing outside your bubble, your team, your comfort zone.

These days, I work for myself. Mostly because it is a rare thing to find an organisation that wants you to work “with” not “for” them. One where you have autonomy, challenge, reward and support to be the best you, so they get your best work. So, these days, breaking out of my tech bubble isn’t about popping into other departments and spending time with them to understand what they do.

These days I go out of my data community comfort zone.

I pop into the Leeds Creative Timebank to meet creatives: artists, photographers, dance coaches to learn what they do, how they do it and in turn fine tune my language. This means I must keep translating “techie” concepts into useful, tangible tools that mean something and do something.

I speak with everyone: students, barbers, waiters, managers, farmers and for the next five days, enthusiastic readers and writers. Data, information and the knowledge that provides is for everyone, so why keep it to ourselves? Why make it such a complex, mythical thing, others can’t get as excited, inspired and buoyed up (but practical) as we are?

It helps that I’m fascinated by skillful competence and the potential for incorporating them into my practice. All in all, it makes me a better person, a better “techie” and boosts my understanding of how data can work for them.

Knowledge for everyone? Yes. As long as we don’t keep it to ourselves.