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.

Changes

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 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. LUKE SKYWALKER You fought in the Browser Wars? OBI-WAN KENOBI Yes. I was once a Web developer, the same as your father.
When I began, the focus was still very much on how the technology worked, on advocating for web standards and creating workarounds to appease IE6 and IE7. But once these standards started to take hold and level the development playing field, the focus moved to usability, user experience, and content strategy. Server-side PHP gave way to client-side JavaScript as the dominant web development language. And, of course, the mobile web has dominated the conversation, just as it was predicted to.

Walk away

Looking back over 12 years, though, I can clearly see that I’ve been down a hard road. Having come through some pretty hairy health problems (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.”

Solitude

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.

My new office with the digital communications team

My desk, PC with three monitors. Shelves in an alcove on the right.
I must have been the naughty one to be sitting in the corner, facing the wall.

Today marked the end of my second week back to work post-virus. Last week I worked three mornings, this week five—although I stayed until 16:30 yesterday to help move my things to our new office in the former Bute medical building. It’s been a very positive week, although I am now really rather tired.

Since May we’ve been asking to be co-located with the three members of the digital communications team with whom we’ve been working closely to change how we manage and develop digital and web assets at St Andrews, such as the University website.

Today we moved into a recently refurbished and spacious office on the third floor of the Bute.

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It’s a really exciting time to be working in the area of web and digital development; it’s an exciting time to be doing that at the University of St Andrews. It’s an enormous task that we have ahead of us, but I’m so looking forward to it.

Hopefully when I return on Monday (for my first full day since 25 July) I will have a network and phone connection and the fun can begin…

The Rev Steven Mackie

The Rev Steven Mackie
The Rev Steven Mackie (27 December 1927 – 14 October 2010)

I was reorganizing my images folders on my PC this evening and came across this scan of a former Practical Theology lecturer of mine, The Rev Steven Mackie.

If I remember correctly I scanned this in 1992 after I had finished my final exams and was looking for creative ways to fill my days until the end of term.  The idea was to create some kind of Andy Warhol-style matrix of portraits and get some t-shirts printed as a fun way to say thank you to him for his support through the previous 4 years.

It never happened. I spent most of the week hanging out in the cathedral grounds with friends, or holed-up in the (then very new) computer room creating a satirical/nonsense newsletter.

Out of interest I ‘googled’ his name and discovered to my sadness that the Rev Steven Mackie died in October of last year, aged 82 years old.  His obituary in the Edinburgh Evening News said this about his time at St Andrews:

Steven was offered a post at St Andrews University to teach practical theology at Mary’s College, a post he held for 21 years until he retired to Edinburgh in 1995. He taught theology in a fully practical sense, relating it to social issues of the day. He was a gifted lecturer who made a deep impression on his students.

He did make a deep impression on his students. I was one of them, and I don’t have scanned photographs of any other of my former lecturers on my hard drive!

The first thing that I remember about Mr Mackie is that the first mistake that almost everyone made when they started at St Mary’s College was to pronounce his name “muh-KIE” (sounding like sky); the correct pronounciation was “MAH-kee”.

The second thing I remember is that his interests seemed to lie mostly in ecumenism and Liberation theology.  Two areas of Practical Theology (which I finally took my degree in) that I wasn’t particularly interested in as a 17 year old.  I kind of wish now that I’d paid a little more attention each week day between 10:00 and 11:00 during 1990-1991.

I remember Mr Mackie as a kind, very caring man who genuinely seemed interested in his students.

I was we’d made those t-shirts now.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.  And let perpetual light shine upon him.

Lean University

I had a great meeting with the University’s Lean team this afternoon.

Lean use elite ninja-like skills to focus on a process, to ensure that it is as waste-free as possible. Key Lean principles are:

  • identifying and eliminating waste
  • continuous improvement of processes
  • ensuring that each stage in a process adds value

Toyota pioneered Lean Manufacturing on these principles in the 1980s and revolutionised automotive production. Toyota is now the most successful automotive production company in the world.

So now you know.

Oh, and the team are fantastic, lovely people.