I’m taking a short sabbatical

My former desk (on the right) in the digital communications team office

End of the beginning

This week marks the end of an era. On Sunday 5 August, after 4,480 days—12 years, 3 months and 5 days—I ended my employment at the University of St Andrews.


Over these 147 months, I’ve seen a huge change in the web development landscape. When I joined the team (of one—the perfect introvert’s team size) in May 2006 as assistant web manager/information architect, the second browser war was still going on. Internet Explorer 6 was still the dominant Windows browser, Firefox was a four-year old upstart and Chrome was still two and a half years away.

My first proper project—after dabbling with some designs for a Press Office website redesign that didn’t come to anything—was to wrestle with Saulcat, the University’s library catalogue system. Who can fail to be impressed with online documentation for a third-party system that you’ve barely ever used that runs to literally tens of thousands of pages? That was also the first project that ever made me cry.

There was an excitement back then. We were on the cutting edge. Pulling an almost all-nighter to get the new site launched in TERMINALFOUR Site Manager v5.0, only to discover that some part of the design didn’t work in IE7 as soon as we went live, and the frantic scramble to get it fixed.

Our focus was so much on the technology: the browser wars were still going.

LUKE SKYWALKER You fought in the Browser Wars?

OBI-WAN KENOBI Yes. I was once a Web developer, the same as your father.

LUKE SKYWALKER No, my father didn’t fight in the Browser Wars. He simply used Netscape Navigator on a spice freighter.

OBI-WAN KENOBI That’s what your uncle told you. He didn’t hold with your father’s ideals—an open, accessible and universal web.

Having come through some pretty hairy health problems (viral meningitis, anyone?), plus a divorce, wardenning in hall (“I’ll sleep when I’m dead!”), and then a recent bowel cancer health-scare (from January through to April), I realised that I needed to start looking after myself for a while. That’s not something that comes easily to me—I find it more natural to care for others.

I have worked pretty much flat out for at least the last 21 years—I’ve poured myself out into each job and given everything that I can. Earlier this year I simply felt broken, burned out with little left to give.

The last four months have provided a useful buffer to rest and heal and reflect on my future. When I was going through the pros and cons of leaving the University, the biggest pro of staying was being with people that I’ve been fortunate to call my friends, in some cases, for the last 26.24% of my life. But that wasn’t enough to keep me at St Andrews—I can always keep up with my friends outside of work-hours.

I am proud of what I have achieved at St Andrews, and what we as a team have achieved. I have been blessed by the friendships that I have made there. But it is time to change pace for a while and allow myself to heal more fully and gain a little more perspective. 

One phrase in particular has been going around my head for the last few months as I’ve journeyed towards this decision: “you cannot heal in the same environment that made you sick”, and in the words of Ozzy Osbourne, “I’m sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.”


So, I have decided to take a short sabbatical.

I will focus on my health, on eating more healthily, on cycling and walking, on resting and focusing on my mental health too. Then I will turn my attention to whatever is next.

As far as employment goes, it’s not as though I’ll be falling off the edge of the world. I have a few irons in the fire, as they say—all still in digital/web development. I’m excited about what’s next. All will be revealed in due course. In the meantime, I am simply enjoying life, enjoying being with my children, and with those I love. Feels good to me.

Fun fact: as I’m taking a sabbatical, I decided to use a lot of Black Sabbath (geddit?) song titles in this post. See if you can find them all.

Today, I’ve been working at St Andrews for a decade

University of St Andrews homepage in 2006
The University of St Andrews website that I inherited in 2006

Today is exactly ten years since I started working at the University of St Andrews. I joined the web team within Business Improvements as assistant information architect/web manager. There were two of us in the team. I always said at the time that I liked my job title because with the forward-slash it looked like a URL.

I remember getting offered the post and thinking, “Well, if I don’t know it now I can always learn it on the job.” You read my reflections on the job interview here on my blog.

Ten years on I am now the web architect within the digital communications team (part of Corporate Communications) we have a team of 10, and I work mostly in Agile project management and business analysis. Ten years on, I still love my job, and I love my team. I’m still being challenged, I am still learning how to do my job better, and I still growing.

Obviously, I’m now even more involved in the life of the University having taken up the post as warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall. I will reflect on that in more detail in another post shortly, suffice to say here that I’ve agreed to stay on beyond my probationary period.

But today I’m celebrating ten years here… well, fourteen if you include my four undergraduate years from 1989 to 1993. I wonder where I will be in ten years from now.

Where The Guardian advertises developer jobs

Screenshot of code from The Guardian website with WE ARE HIRING written in ASCII art
Screenshot of code from The Guardian website with WE ARE HIRING written in ASCII art

This evening I was reading an article by Giles Fraser on The Guardian website and I was intrigued to understand how they coded the drop-cap at the top of the article:

Screenshot of dropped cap
.drop-cap > .drop-cap__inner

So being versed in the ways of the web developer I highlighted the letter, right-clicked and selected Inspect (I’m using Google Chrome, other browsers are also available). This opens a code inspector where you can poke around the HTML, CSS and JavaScript that builds a webpage, and it even allows you to edit it in situ to better understand how it all fits together.

I smiled when I saw, at the top of the HTML code, written in a comment in a combination of text and ASCII art:



Ever thought about joining us?

What a terrific idea! Brilliant targeted advertising.


My new role for 2016—warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall

Agnes Blackadder Hall (formerly New Hall)
Agnes Blackadder Hall, formerly New Hall. (Photo credit: Google Maps)

It turns out that when a couple separates it is customary — in the antithesis of the Spice Girls song — for one to become two. So next month I’ll be moving into my new flat at Agnes Blackadder Hall in St Andrews, where I’ve been appointed as the new warden.

I feel very honoured and privileged to be given this opportunity. It seems like a very natural move for me, drawing on past experience working in three residential homeless hostels in London, as well as in pastoral care roles in parishes, prison and hospitals, and my last nine and a half years working at the University of St Andrews, as well as four as a student.

(I’ve just realised that I’ve spent 30.6% of my life at St Andrews.)

I’ll still be working as web architect within the digital communications team, the warden role will be alongside that post: evenings and weekends mostly.

I’m really looking forward to the new opportunities, the new challenges, new experiences… and the enormously steep learning curve ahead of me.

As I said a couple of weeks ago: To quote Faith No More: “Life to [me] is a dashing, bold adventure / So sing, and rejoice, sing, and rejoice”.

About homelessness

Woman sitting on the pavement crying into her hands.

From 1995 – 1997 I worked for the Shaftesbury Society with young homeless people (16-25 year olds) in London. I worked in three hostels: two direct access (in Kilburn and Camberwell) and one supported hostel in Bermondsey.

I remember hearing at that time that there was enough money being pumped into the various homelessness charities and services to buy each and every homeless person in London a house. And I remember thinking at that time that that was an awful lot of money, even with lower house prices ten years ago, and surely the money could be put to better use.

You see the solution to the homelessness problem isn’t in pouring money into hostels to remove these ‘inconvenient’ homeless folks from the streets: out of sight, out of mind. The solution, surely lies in investing time and money in trying to help transform these people’s lives.

(I suddenly realised that I could be writing about the Church here too! But I digress, back to homelessness …)

A lot of the homeless young folks who entered our hostels we saw again and again. From our short-stay hostels many would be allocated a council flat and move out. Only to return to the hostel a few months later, having lost their tenancy. The reason being that many of these young people didn’t have the social or domestic skills to be able to look after themselves or to keep a house.

It’s maybe something that many of take for granted: keeping a house. But it’s an enormous leap — especially for an 18 year old — to go from living on the streets, or on a friend’s couch, or in a hostel to your own flat. It takes courage and discipline and patience and responsibility. I have a great deal of respect for those who managed it; I know a few who died trying.

Open letter

So it was with delight that I read Big Issue founder John Bird’s open letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown in last week’s issue (June 28 – July 4). Here are a few key paragraphs:

Ninety-five percent of the budget that goes towards homelessness services-the-problem rather than ending-the-problem. If you look at the amount of people who get out of homelessness compared [with] the money spent, it is derisory.

Put metaphorically, it is a bit like paying the interest on a loan rather than paying it off.

This is not the fault of the hostels, which become like warehouses. It is expensive getting people out of need, and no-one has that kind of money available.

The same, alas, is the situation in the prison system. We don’t spend money to transform people. Again, we spend about 95% of the budget on keeping people in. But increasingly that does not guarantee that when they are out, they will stay out.

What we need to do is TRANSFORM people while they are homeless, or in prison. Not hold them for a while and then let them go, only to return to their former problems …

He then gives a couple of examples. I certainly recognised this analogy:

Imagine going to the doctor and being told that you need an operation. You are immediately booked into a hospital. You are shown your bed. You are shown the thing to change the telly. You are asked what you want to eat. The next day is the same. And the day after. And then the day, the week and the month after. Then one day the nurse says with a smile, “You’re going home tomorrow.” And you say, “But I thought I was going to have an operation.” The nurse says, “Oh yes, you were, but we can’t afford the cure. We haven’t got the money for that.”

That is what life is like when you’re homeless or in prison. The cure is not a part of the deal. People are sometimes cured, but the rate is so low that the amount of investment makes a mockery of the process.

Lena Fox House

That’s why I was proud of what we did with Lena Fox House in Bermondsey, SE1. We moved from being a direct access hostel (that is one that takes people straight off the street) to being one that offered training in life-skills.

We had three levels of accommodation: residents moved from supported accommodation, where we cooked meals for them, to semi-supported where they’d have to budget and cook their own meals, to independent living in bedsit flats next door.

Some of the young folks we worked with moved into their own flats, got jobs and as far as I know are living successfully on their own or in relationships. It’s just such a shame that there wasn’t the money to keep that work going, and the project folded a few years after I left.

New Start Project

That’s also why I’m proud of Jane’s involvement and achievements with The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award New Start Project which works with young people in prison and at risk of offending. Their efforts have really enhanced the lives of so many young people and worked to help solve the problem, not just help fund it.

… Dear Gordon

If I may close with a few more words from John Bird:

The other big issue … is to dismantle the oxygenators of social collapse in the first place. The culture of benefit-supported poverty, the culture of social failure …

You need to go upstream. You need to get to the family before it is a family. We need to dismantle the poor parenting, the poor estates, the poor living conditions and culture. That is where the majority of crime, violence and murder is bred. It’s bred in the early years of life. And we have to be brave and stop that source of oxygen to social failure.

The 2004 Joseph Rowntree Trust Centennial report said that, in spite of spending vast amounts of money on poverty, we are scraping the surface. Prime Minister, you have the power to really make poverty history, rather than a short-sighted utopian media campaign.

The Big Issue is more than happy to help in the dismantling of homelessness, crime and poverty. In fact we think it is our duty. And imagine the vast savings of money you will make because instead of just paying the interest on that loan, you’ll be paying the loan off.

Much more to be praying about, I think, dear Saints of the Internet; praying and writing to our MPs and the Prime Minister about.

You can contact your Councillors, MP, MEPs, MSPs, or Northern Ireland, Welsh and London AMs for free at www.writetothem.com.