Seven years in Birmingham

The view from my desk

It’s been seven years and a few weeks since I moved from Manchester to Birmingham. Why is this number significant? Because seven years is also the amount of time I spent in Manchester, from May 2003 to April 2010, and I want to now compare these two chapters in my life. As you get older time passes more quickly and so, needless to say, my seven years in Birmingham seem shorter than my seven years in Manchester, despite having achieved so much more in the same space of time.

I enjoyed my time in Manchester and I didn’t want to leave when I did. Circumstances at the time kind of forced my hand, however, having made a few poor choices during those years, both professionally and personally. I was out of work at the time of moving and living with a very good friend after I stopped being able to pay my mortgage. One day he turned to me and said that he was moving to Birmingham to work on a project. I was welcome to tag along if I wanted, but otherwise I’d have to sort myself out.

Nice-but-dull house in Sutton Coldfield

I wasn’t in much of a position to do anything but “tag along”, so, reluctantly, I did just that. I moved down to a shared house in Sutton Coldfield, and as nice as the house and the area was, it was very different to what I was used to; I went from city centre Manchester with all its life and convenience to a sleepy family-orientated suburb of a strange city which I did not know at all. I didn’t have my own transport and I felt very miserable and isolated from my friends and my life in Manchester.

Within three months of moving down I landed a job in the city centre. At the time this position felt like a huge step backward for me, and for the first nine months I saw it and treated it only as a stop-gap until something better came along, or a chance to move back to Manchester came my way. This negative attitude didn’t help me either perform particularly well at the job or start to build my new life in Birmingham; I convinced myself that it was all temporary and so I didn’t give it the care and attention that it deserved.

But then, in the spring of 2011, things started to change and get better for me. The company helped me deal with some issues and gave me more responsibility. I had also started to build a network through the company I worked for, both personal and professional, and I found it to be much warmer and more supportive than any previous network I had earlier in life. Manchester wasn’t unfriendly, but it was more ruthless, professionally and personally, and I never really flourished there in either regard. This time it felt different, and it was different.

Alpha Tower (my office is 2 floors down from the top)

It turned out that, in the end, this “stop-gap” of a job which I had so reluctantly taken after so reluctantly having moved, was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m still working for that company, seven years later. I’m well-respected and I sit on its Board of Directors and I have roles in the parent company which bought it during 2016. None of this came overnight, certainly not, and nor should it have; it hasn’t come without lots of hard work and proving myself, but I’ve done it, and I’m happier than I have ever been before.

The company gave me structure, support, aspiration and challenge. I was lucky in that I was able to grow with the company. I was its 12th employee and now there are around 80 of us, and I think had I joined the company when it was 80-strong instead of 12 then I probably would have drowned.

But I didn’t drown. Instead, I grew, and I made a difference, both to the company and myself. Through this company I have met some of the most important people I have ever met or ever will meet in my life and the value of that is simple incalculable and not something I ever could have imagined I would be blessed with when I so reluctantly left my old life in Manchester behind.

View from apartment on New Street

In late 2011 I was able to move from Sutton Coldfield and into the city centre of Birmingham in a place of my own, back into a setting with which I was much more comfortable, and one which I at that point then fully embraced and appreciated, not only because Birmingham wasn’t strange to me any more by then, but also because I dearly missed city life whilst I was out in the suburbs and I wasn’t going to take it for granted any more. I was arguably a little spoilt in Manchester, in many respects, and didn’t realise or appreciate what I had.

Jewellery Quarter apartment building on Warstone Lane

In early 2014, after a couple of years of living on the convenient but noisy New Street, I then moved to the quieter and fashionable Jewellery Quarter area (ironically enough just down the road from the office I first worked in with my company) and I’ve been living here ever since. It’s a nice quiet area at night but still only a 15 minute walk to work and the city centre. It was a bit down-at-heal in 2010 when I worked here but has undergone significant gentrification in the years since. My plan is to spend another three years living in the same place before purchasing a suitable house somewhere, probably outside the city centre, but that will be on my terms and by then I will be ready for it! I know I can’t spend the rest of my life in the city centre.

One thing is for certain. I’ve spent longer in Birmingham now than I did in Manchester, but I have absolutely no intention of closing this chapter any time soon. I know and appreciate this city much better than I ever did Manchester. It and the people I have met here have given me the right opportunities and its helped me get me to where I want to be, with firm structure and plans for taking that even further.

It’s not just work, of course it’s not, and although work is responsible for facilitating many friendships I have made I’ve also built a life outside work. I’ve met new and amazing friends, with many of whom I celebrated my 40th birthday party in the Jewellery Quarter.

I’ve not mentioned any names in this post. It’s not that certain individuals aren’t important to me, they know all too well how important they are to me and they don’t need to be told, and so they don’t need to be named in public. Needless to say they have been instrumental in enriching my life over past the seven years, whether they act in personal, professional, or both those capacities.

I’ve also become physically fit, much fitter than I ever was during my 20s and 30s, something for which I failed to form the required habit for so long, something which I somewhat regret now (but not that much, I’m still enjoying it!). It’s not just about looking good, the fitness is a major contributing factor to my well-being, self-confidence and performance at work. I wish I had done it 20 years ago.

Even the country’s politics are going my way after being dominated the other way during my time in Manchester, what more could I ask for?!

Thank you for reading :)

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Cadburys Olympic Podium Clock

I worked on a couple of extra-curricular projects over Christmas, one being a a project for Cadburys, who are touring the country over the next six months before the Olympic Games with three podium-style stands on which punters can attempt to win one of ten pairs of tickets to the opening ceremony by estimating how long exactly 20.12 seconds is. These will appear in various shopping centres and exhibitions over the months.

Punters press the big red comedy button to start and press it again to stop, and no, they don’t have view of the screen while they’re playing. If they win there’s a winning sequence of sounds and words on the display and the operator also activates four flashing purple police lights. It’s pretty much impossible to estimate correctly, however, even if you do have sight of the screen.

My job was to create the software for this including all the graphics, which I did using my normal skill-set of HTML, CSS and Javascript/jQuery (no server-side stuff required, runs on a laptop without an Internet connection). I’m also able to push out software updates to each of the three stands over the next six months should they for some reason become necessary.

The screens in the photo below will be installed within the podium-style stands themselves and only the clock digits themselves will be visible through the aperture in the front (simulated by the crude paper surround on the screen on the right). The purple bar at the top of the screens is only visible on the operator’s laptop and contains some basic options and settings which aren’t publicly visible. The red button is custom built and contains a USB numeric keypad with a mechanism that presses the “5” key. This then simply plugs into the laptop as a USB keyboard.

It was a nice bit of fun. It’s not a million miles away from the sort of things I used to do when I worked for 2Heads back in 2000/2001, so almost a little nostalgic. No plugins or flash either, all HTML5, CSS3 and jQuery, as it should be.

Testing the displays and the comedy red button

In action in the Birmingham Bullring during March 2012

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PHP Vacancy

We’re hiring for a Software Engineer at work to join our technical team based in Birmingham city centre (Jewellery Quarter). If you’re looking for a challenging PHP role and you think you might fit the bill, please do drop me a line with your current CV. Full job specification below. Please don’t be put off by the crappy website, we’re literally just about to launch its replacement :)

Glide is a rapidly growing energy and telecommunications company specialising in looking after tenants, landlords, letting agents and property investors across the UK. They supply gas, electricity, telephony and broadband services to residential and commercial customers.

About Glide

They believe in hard work in an informal atmosphere that encourages people to express their ideas. They look for talented people who want to work with technology and can tackle problems in a smart and creative way. Their employees enjoy working in a challenging environment that brings out the best in them. Customers and customer service are at the heart of everything they do – their business revolves around their customers.

They have their own in-house development, customer support and sales teams and remain focused on keeping their costs low through automation and keeping customers informed through good communication. As technology evolves, they aim to bring new and improved services to their customers as early as possible.

About The Role

They currently have an opportunity for a full-time senior software engineer, starting immediately, as part of their in-house software team.

The role will focus on developing their bespoke systems. Their systems are written in object-orientated PHP with a SQL database. You will need to be a highly competent programmer  in PHP, SQL, Javascript, AJAX, Smarty templates, Model-View-Controller and in documenting your work. Good familiarity with Ubuntu/Debian based systems is required. Experience with invoicing routines, SVN or accountancy systems would be useful.

The role will involve working on projects to develop existing products, launch new products and services, improve internal customer service systems, update and maintain accountancy systems and invoicing scripts, debugging and diagnosing problems with their existing code base and working closely with their customer service teams. The role also includes integrating their system with multiple third party suppliers, redeveloping customer portals and revamping their website.

You will be enthusiastic about new technology, eager to learn, and will hold a degree in Computer Science or equivalent. You will be capable of managing your own time.

Application Details

The company is a place where everyone can be heard. If you like the sound of this opportunity, they’d love to hear from you. Please direct your communication and correspondence through my team or direct to me. Please view the website at www.glide.uk.com for more background information to assist you with your response.

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Who was the best boss you’ve ever had?

My first boss. I think a lot of people would say the same thing as your first boss more often than not has a very important role in shaping the future of your career. A manager taking on someone who hasn’t had a ("proper") job before must taken on and embrace a very important mentor role, and if they don’t then they’re frankly not a very good boss.

I would like to think I’ve played a similar role on people who I’ve taken on under me in the past and I hope to continue to do so in the future. It’s as important to me that I do this as Mr. Sandeep Sharma was to me when I started working. I have endless respect for the man.

Decided to give Formspring a go. I will answer most questions but if you want to insult me then please do it to my face.

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Not dropped off the face of the earth

Apologies for not blogging so much recently, I’ve got a lot on my plate with work and home life at the moment. The Margobarge is off the road because she failed the MOT and needs work to correct it (specifically, the LCD dashboard display needs to be replaced so I can read the mileage, I need the mileage to get an MOT certificate, and I need the MOT certificate to tax it and get it back on the road). So I’m walking and training it to work at the moment and for a couple of month which has doubled my commuting time but since i’m going to be walking 4km each day it’s not going to do me any harm. Would have been better if it was still summer though, obviously!

Ignore this is you are not a train geek: I’m back on the Class 323s which I was on when I was living in Manchester and worked in Cheadle Hulme, They’re packed every morning and the uphosterly’s a horrible green. The Class 323 is the one with the really whiny gearbox. In this area they’re run by London Midland.

I did make it to Manchester Pride 2010 but only for a couple of days, it’s kind of hard to make a whole weekend of it when you don’t live 300 yards down the road from it any more, but for the time I was there I did enjoy myself. I especially enjoyed the debut Cubstars perfomance, which stars (amongst others) my friend Brian.

I will get photos onto this site once I’ve fixed the plugin that sucks them up from Facebook but which has stopped working properly since the WordPress 3.0 rollout. If you’re friends with me on Facebook you’ll be able to see them in my photo albums.

It wasn’t the best of Prides I’ve ever had but I did make the best of it. I’m a bit skint and stressed at the moment and I’m chalking it up to my head not being in the right space for it. Perhaps next year when I can save up for it and do it properly, who knows. I shall be trying Birmingham Pride for the first time first, next summer.

It was a little strange being back in Manchester for the first time in a number of months. I still do miss the place, and I think one day I would like to move back. But I’ve got a lot of hard work to do and shit to sort out before I can even consider it. We’ll see. Manchester has been such a big part of my life and had I been given the choice I would not have left. My current surroundings are by no means unpleasant but they are, basically, alien to me given my limited knowledge of the area, although in fairness that knowledge is improving every day.

I’ve got a lot of hard work to do between now and the end of the and I’ve no choice but to grit my teeth and bear it. I’m still looking for a few side consultancy projects that I can do in my spare time, so if you think you can take advantage of my skillset please get in touch.

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Would your life be much different without the internet, and if so, how?

I’ve much to thank the Internet for and I’m only sorry that it didn’t come along earlier. It certainly would be different without it.

It’s provided me with a career if nothing else, although since I’m an old-school educated software engineer I can in theory turn my hand to any kind of software development, regardless of the application. It just happens that I cut my teeth on web software applications.

When I was coming out I didn’t have access to the Internet and neither did the Internet have the sort of resources for gay people it has now even if I did have access to it, so I was pretty much fending for myself. I can only imagine how different my life would have been had I been born ten years later.

Glamourous visions of the future in old films told us that we would have flying cars and have almost everything automated. They never predicted that the whole world would one day be connected in the way that it is now. A flying car would be great, but I wouldn’t swap it for the Internet.

Decided to give Formspring a go. I will answer most questions but if you want to insult me then please do it to my face.

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Back in the saddle

I  started my new job in Birmingham city centre (specifically, the Jewellery Quarter) on Monday, for Glide Utilities, a firm that sells household utilities (gas, electricity, telephone, broadband and TV licence) as a package to renting house-sharers, passing on a portion of the cost-savings brought about by bulk deals made with suppliers.

As I mentioned in my previous post, instead of paying separate suppliers directly, who will insist that accounts held with them are in one name only, house-sharers all pay a fixed sum every month to Glide who then handle the rest. It makes for easy budgeting and reduces household administration which can otherwise be a bit bewildering to people who are living separately from their parents and not in university halls for the first time. Glide is currently unique in its market and by all accounts seems to be doing very well.

My job is, with another member of technical staff, to maintain and enhance the somewhat complex software system that runs the company, which does virtually everything from internal company administration, accounting and billing right through to live ordering and status checking of utilities from suppliers. As with any existing system being started on by a new developer I will need a suitable gear-up period, but I’m making great inroads into it and I reckon that by the end of the week I’ll be able to make some initial recommendations as to procedure and future development.

It’s really good to be doing what I do full time again. It occurred to me on Monday morning that the last time I got up in the morning to go to a full time job in an office somewhere my life was very different, better in some ways and worse in others. It’s very different now, still a long way from ideal, but I do know that I’m going in the right direction to get to where I want to be. Doing what I am good at every day is a critically important step towards my goals rather than wasting time on the amount of sales and marketing that self employment demands of me, because I’m absolutely hopeless at both. I’m creative and technical, always have been, always will be.

I’ve been told to get the train in on Friday and not drive in. I can only assume that this means there’s going to be some sort of new-starter party in the afternoon/evening. It’s a young company and everyone who works there is around my age or younger, so I think it’s a fair bet that that’s what it’s going to be.

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Gainful employment

I’m delighted to report that on Monday I start a new job as a Software Engineer for a utilities management company in the Jewellery Quarter in central Birmingham. The reality of being self employed is quite different to what is perceived and I was very much struggling with the sales and marketing side of working for myself, so I decided to move back in to full time employment in order that I may concentrate on and spend my time on what I’m actually good at rather than incur frustration at spending time on having to do things that I’m not so hot at. I’ve never been a salesperson and I never will be. You have to be a certain type of person to do that I’m just not that person. I’m creative and technical, always will be.

The company is unique in its market. It provides a service to landlords and tenants whereby all members of a shared rented household pay one fixed monthly sum for all their utilities, including gas, electricity, water, telephone and broadband. Primarily aimed at the student market where house-sharing is most common, the company uses its buying power to negotiate cheaper rates from utilities providers and passes a portion of those savings on to their customers. It’s an exciting young company and I believe that I can make a difference to their operation and improve it through the ongoing enhancement of their existing software systems.

It’s an 11 mile commute into central Birmingham every day, which is fine, it should take me around 45 minutes each way. I don’t have to be in the office until 10.00am each day so that should allow me to avoid the worst of the traffic, which is ironically enough on the roads leading into and out of Sutton Coldfield rather than central Birmingham itself, once I’m past Sutton it becomes a lot easier. The equivalent train journey is less pleasant at 90 minutes in each direction including the two walks from the start and destination stations, so using the car is the way to go.

I’m looking forward to it.