Travel Guide: Iceland

Earlier this year, my boyfriend and I visited Iceland and it was one of, if not the best, holiday I’ve ever been on. We went in late March, a good time to see the Northern Lights; experts suggest the best months are November-February, but more generally September-April.

Since then, it seems all our friends have been planning trips there and have subsequently been asking our advice. So here’s what we got up to, day by day.


Day 1

Upon exiting Keflavik airport, the usual airport for people visiting Reykjavik, we met a man from the car company. We decided to hire a car because our trip was 7 days, more than the usual long weekend for tourists, which meant we had time to see things that weren’t offered on bus tours. We booked the car from Auto Europe on recommendation from a friend. They are not based at the airport which makes them somewhat cheaper (less than £100 excluding petrol). The company also uses smaller, local companies throughout Europe, so check your booking form to see what company name will be displayed on your pick up sign. We braved the cold for the first time, shuffled into the taxi van and got driven 5-10 minutes down the road. They tried to sell us their own insurance (though we had already bought some with Auto Europe) as well as sandstorm cover. This was to cover us from supposedly random sand storms that happen across roads etc in high winds that leave lots of tiny dints in the car. Apparently it costs into the tens of thousands to fix. We didn’t opt for the sandstorm cover, thinking that if the winds were high we would be able to find cover somewhere and having checked the weather forecast, we didn’t feel it necessary.

Now the fun begins!

First stop: the Bridge Between Two Continents. It’s a man-made bridge connecting America to the West and Europe to the East over the gap that was formed by the tectonic plates of the continents drifting. From the airport, there are two ways you can drive because of the ring road; West along the 44 and 425 or East along the 41 and 43. We drove West for about 20 minutes before noticing the bridge on our left. The bridge is clearly visible from the road, so don’t stop early and try and walk to find it like we did! It’s a bizarre feeling to know you are stood on one continent when your travelling partner is stood on another.

Bridge Between Continents

Bridge Between Continents

From there, we drove to the Blue Lagoon. Again, we could have gone two ways. We thought continuing on the West road and up the East looked quicker on a map, but our sat nav told us otherwise. It took around half an hour before the approach to the geothermal plant started to fill the car with the enticing aroma of bad eggs. We didn’t have to queue for tickets as we bought them online, as was suggested due to it’s popularity. We had bought the Comfort Package which included the use of a towel, a drink at the bar and a face mask. However, I don’t think it was worth it. In certain areas of the pool, there were troughs of natural white mud gathered from the outskirts of the lagoon that visitors can use for face masks. The face mask that comes with the Comfort package is a small sachet, almost identical to this mud. If you bring your own towel and buy a drink at the bar, it’ll be cheaper than the package upgrade. That aside, for ~£35, the Blue Lagoon is fantastic! The water is beautifully hotter than a bath after the freezing dash from the changing rooms building. We spent around 3 hours there.

Bridge at the Blue Lagoon

Bridge at the Blue Lagoon

Next we embarked on a 4 hour journey to the South East. We were visiting this area because we had booked a trip to the Ice Caves for the next day. Disappointingly, it got cancelled a few days before departure because the caves had melted too much. Still, we made our way to the hotel, Fosshotel Nupar. It was a tiring drive, mostly in the dark, on roads that don’t have lights. However, it was exciting to spot a lit up waterfall in the distance, Seljalandsfoss. We pulled up, walked up as far as we could before it got too icy, got a little sprayed and then decided to come again in the daytime (see Day 5). It was magical, like most other natural wonders in Iceland.

Selandjafoss waterfall in the dark

Selandjafoss waterfall in the dark

Stepping out of the car at the hotel around 23:30, we glanced up at the sky in awe of the Northern Lights. As you probably know, some people visit Iceland and never see a glimpse, so we were very lucky to see them on our first night. They appeared white, not green and purple as in photographs, but they certainly did dance across the sky. After checking into the hotel, the receptionist kindly offered us some hot chocolate and biscuits that were laid out for a Norther Lights Tour visiting the hotel on their nightly itinerary.


Day 2

We started the day with breakfast in the hotel. It was nice – a typical Icelandic breakfast with pancakes, pastries, cold ham/cheese and cereal. We sat near the window looking towards the mountains, with spots of snow covering the browny grass. Iceland is such a beautiful place. Just driving around and seeing the different landscapes, where the whether changes from sunshine to snow within minutes, is one of the best things you’ll experience out there. Driving also means you can simply stop off when you see something interesting.

Driving in Iceland

Driving in Iceland

We set off further East towards Skatafell, which took about an hour. As a replacement for the Ice Caves tour, we were on route to a Skidoo Tour (Tour III). As we reached the meet up location, it happened to be the day of the Total Solar Eclipse, so we watched that in crystal clear skies. Our group got kitted out with snow suits, wellies, gloves and helmets before clambering into jeeps. The guide drove us up a steep mountain that gradually got snowier and snowier. After 20 minutes we stopped and swapped into vehicles that drove on belts instead of wheels. Finally we reached the top of the glacier with endless views of pristine, untouched snow.

Snowmobiling on a glacier

Snowmobiling on a glacier

We paired up and swapped onto snow mobiles. We were on the snow mobiles for an hour, with a break in between to swap drivers. During the transition we walked to the edge of the glacier to see the sea in the distance, leg-deep in snow. I’d highly recommend having a go at driving – you get a great sense of freedom speeding across the open snow. It’s expensive at ~£100 each but worth every penny.

View from a glacier

View from a glacier

During the afternoon, as a further apology for the Ice Caves cancellation, the company took just myself and my partner Ice Climbing for a reduced fee (~£50 each). Personally I still thought it was a little expensive but it depends how much you enjoy that type of activity. First, we were given crampons for our shoes so we could walk over the icy terrain towards the ice wall. On the way, the guide pointed out geological features and explained their creation.

Volcanic landscape

Volcanic landscape

Before climbing, we helped set up all the safety wires as they would be if you were doing it on a larger scale. Attached to the safety harness and armed with ice picks, I embarked upon the wall. It’s much more difficult than it looks – you need strong arms and legs to latch with your pick, dig in your toes and balance like a monkey.

Ice wall climbing

Ice wall climbing


Day 3

After checking out from Fosshotel Nupar, we heading back South West to stay 2 days around the Golden Circle, before finishing our holiday in Reykjavik. We made several stops along the road on the way back.

West of Vik, we found a lovely waterfall whose water tunnelled through a doughnut like hole before crashing to the floor. I’ve been unable to find the name of it so it mustn’t be famous; perhaps it was this particular formation of snow and ice that made it look special.

Unknown Waterfall

Unknown Waterfall

Next, we stopped at the side of the road to have a walk over some strange, green, spongy moss. I don’t know much about this, but as there was a tour group of photographers there, it must be something of interest!

Green moss

Green moss

Arriving at Vik, we took a walk on the beach. There wasn’t much to do here, so we heading a little further up the road (driving as we had been that day from East to West, taking the first turning on our left) to the main Black Sands Beach. In addition to the unusual sensation of black beneath your feet were the breathtaking rock formations and caves.

Black Sands beach cave

Black Sands beach cave

The next road on the left leads to a hill with a statue where you can view the Black Sands Beach from a distance.

Overlooking Black Sands beach

Overlooking Black Sands beach

A little harder to find was the Crashed Plane at Sólheimasandur  turned abandoned wreckage after an emergency landing went wrong. Driving further still is a little dirt road on your left with a sign stating that you had to be driving a 4×4 to use it. This was the only road during our trip that had such a sign, so generally it’s fine to hire a normal car. Ignoring the sign, we drove very, very, very slowly down the rocky road. Occasionally, I had to jump out to move boulders out of the way so it didn’t scratch the underneath of the car (something that gets inspected upon return to the rental company). It took about 20 minutes to drive, compared to around 45 minutes to walk. Not much difference you might think, but in the cold wind and drizzle it was preferable. This more detailed description of how to find the crash might be helpful.

Crashed plane at Sólheimasandur

Crashed plane at Sólheimasandur

The plane itself was an incredible sight. We were the only people there, walking around inside the aircraft, perching in the cockpit and riding the wings.

Inside of crashed plane

Inside of crashed plane

Skógafoss waterfall was next on our list. It’s wasn’t my favourite waterfall, but it’s fairly big and a nice view once you’ve climbed the many steps to the top. There are also rest rooms with showers in a small cabin near the entrance.

Skógafoss waterfall

Skógafoss waterfall

The final stop of the day was Seljavallalaug, a naturally heated pool in the wilderness. For some reason, it’s one of those places that easily overlooked by other visitors but I can’t recommend it enough. It’s about a 20 minute walk from parking up, but it did involve crossing small streams at that time of year. There are changing rooms for both genders but the floors are bare, wet and muddy and they only contain a few hooks and possibly a bench. None of that matters though when you take a dip in the middle of nowhere. The water was mildly warm throughout but boiling next to the pipe inlet. Had it been hotter and not raining we’ve have spent a little longer than 15 minutes in it!

Seljavallalaug pool

Seljavallalaug pool

Our accommodation for the night was Hotel Laekur. It was gorgeous! A cosy cabin-like feel, yet modern with an outdoor hot tub. The owners were lovely and woke us up at 2AM that night with a Northern Lights wake up call we had requested earlier. Hotel Ranga is nearby and very highly rated, however give this place a try. With only a few rooms, it’s got a lovely family feel to it.

Hotel Laekur in the snow

Hotel Laekur in the snow


Day 4

Day 4 began with a visit to Kerid Crater. It’s the only geological attraction we visited that charged an entrance fee though it was only 350 ISK (~£1.80). It’s certainly worth the money; the red/green rocks and foliage of the sides contrasted with the blue/white watery, icy centre provides some stunning photographs.  It takes about 20 minutes to walk around the rim and there’s also a path leading to the bottom that takes around 10 minutes to descend.

Kerid Crater

Kerid Crater

Next we made our way to Skalholt Church. It’s a gorgeous little building with a museum underground telling the story of King Christian III of Denmark (optional donation if I remember correctly). It looked beautiful with the sun shining through the stained glass windows.

Skalholt Church

Skalholt Church

Onto Strokkur Geysir, a spring that intermittently shoots water up towards the sky. Being a must-see, it’s one of the three destinations on a Golden Circle Tour. As we were driving there, we parked just across the road at the cafe, which serves typical Icelandic lunches. FYI, these are: ham, cheese and mustard sandwiches, Kjötsúpa (lamb soup) and Skyr (the famous yoghurt). You will find these items served everywhere! There is also a shop selling clothes and souvenirs. Surrounded by the now familiar stench of eggs, we walked through the park, passing mud pools and springs until we reached Strokkur. It ejects frequently so we waiting no more than 5 minutes at a time and stayed for several eruptions, trying to get a good picture.

Geysir Hot Springs

Geysir Hot Springs

Number 2 on the Golden Circle route was Gullfoss Waterfall. Now, it is massive and for that it’s impressive, but personally I prefer the smaller waterfalls. There are various viewpoints for photographs, from lower or higher levels. The lower track was closed due to the amount of snow when we went.

Gullfoss Waterfall

Gullfoss Waterfall

We didn’t officially visit the final Golden Circle area, Thingvellir National Park, except for driving through bits of it.

For the final stop of the day, we went in search of Raufarholshellir Lava Tube Cave. It is probably best to go on an organised trip but in the right conditions you might be able to explore it yourself. We followed the directions from the Trip Advisor visitors as well as Isor: Iceland Geosurvey. The latter directions helped us find the car park, where there are instructions to find the three cave openings. Even so, it took us over an hour to find, but that was probably due to the snowfall. The openings, essentially holes in the ground, are in a parallel line very close to the roadside. In summer I imagine they are very easy to spot, but be careful in winter as you could easily fall down one. We found the openings, but thought it was not worth going down incase we couldn’t get back up.

Second entrance to Raufarholshellir Lava Tube Cave

Second entrance to Raufarholshellir Lava Tube Cave


Day 5

We took the morning to go back to things we had run out of time for earlier in the week. We drove back to Seljalandsfoss, the waterfall we had previous only seen in the dark. It was just as beautiful and still just as icy. We had seen signs and read that you could walk behind the waterfall. So we kitted up in our waterproofs and started along the path. I’m not joking when I said it was icy – I slide on my bottom almost the whole way down. It was actually really dangerous and I would not recommend doing it in such unsafe conditions. There was also no staff – so different to the UK where it would be a health and safety nightmare! Despite all that, we reached the end and it was such a novelty to stand behind a waterfall. Together with the spray of the downpour and sliding our way back along the rocks, we reached the car pretty soaked. After a quick change, we walked along a short nearby path to another waterfall but it was far less impressive though still worth a look.

Behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall

Behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall

Eyjafjallajokull Visitor Centre is on the right side of the main road (if you’re driving East). For 800 ISK (~£4), the exhibition called Iceland Erupts, tells the story of a real family affected by the ash cloud of 2010. The 20 minute film is compelling – informative, emotional and visually enticing. To round it off, the gift shop is run by the lady from the film who is more than happy to talk or answer questions.

We spent the next 4 hours driving West towards Reykjavik. We stayed in a room in this AirBnB. The reason we booked it was the rooftop sauna and hot tub, though the sauna was out of order during our stay. The couple who own the place are very nice; they gave us a map and highlighted the best places for food. The house is 10 minutes walk uphill to the centre of town where Hallgrimskirkja Church is.  


Day 6

We spent the day wondering around Reykjavik. First stop was Hallgrimskirkja Church. The inside is nice but nothing compared to the unusual structure outside. To get the lift to the top costs 800 ISK (~£4) which is worth it for the views of the town. The lift only fits about 8 people in, so you might have to queue.

Hallgrimskirkja Church

Hallgrimskirkja Church

From there we walked through the main high street which is full of cafes and restaurants. Across town is the Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre. It looks like a nice building from the outside, but there’s not much to see inside. We booked the 360 Cinematic Experience, which cost 1500 ISK (~£7) to view 10 minutes of landscape pictures we had seen for real, projected onto 4 walls, ceiling and floor from sat on an undersized cube in the centre of the room. Needless to say it was a complete waste of money.

Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre

Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre

The silver lining was the hot dog stand across the water. At 400 ISK (~£2), they are the cheapest food in Iceland! You’ll probably want more than one as they aren’t that big, but it’s not a problem at that price. They are tasty, but I don’t think anything could live up to the amount of hype they’ve received.

Back near the AirBnB, was the National Museum of Iceland. At 1500 ISK (~£7), it’s good value as there are two floors and you could spend several hours there. The artefacts are interesting, but with a relatively short and simple history compared to other countries, some might find it lacking or a little repetitive.

On our way out to dinner, we stopped by the Lebowski Bar. It had a huge variety of White Russians, my favourite of which was The Siberian – the usual plus baileys and ice cream. Be warned though, the White Russian’s aren’t part of happy hour.

The Siberian White Russian at Lebowski Bar

The Siberian White Russian at Lebowski Bar

Having snacked and grabbed food on the go the entire week, we booked into the highly rated Grill Market (Grillmarkadurinn). The restaurant itself was fancy and romantic, yet we were sat at what felt like an intimate table. We opted for the tasting menu at 9900 ISK (~£50) each, which included 6 courses without wine. The food was unusual, both in taste and because it was served on rocks instead of plates. The waiter would not tell us what the dishes were because the chef wanted to surprise and delight the tastebuds. The only downside was that the experience lasted 3 hours. I genuinely fell asleep waiting for the dessert board to arrive. All in all, I would recommend it for a special treat.

Food at the Grill Market

Food at the Grill Market


Day 7

By only the second day in Reykjavik, we felt like we had almost exhausted it. There were only two attractions left we wanted to see:

Whales of Iceland is an exhibition of life sized, plastic whales costing 2900 ISK (~£15). The information was very detailed and sometimes interactive. However, unless you’re really interested in whales I’d give it a miss, especially as it’s a little pricey. Depending on the time of year, you could instead go whale watching or to see puffins from one of many tour companies along the harbour.

Whales of Iceland exhibition

Whales of Iceland exhibition

Lastly, where else but the Icelandic Phallological Museum a.k.a the Penis Museum. From rabbits to whales and everything in between, there were many specimens to examine. There was the occasional information sheet and mythological story. At 1250 ISK (~£6.30), it reasonably priced for an hour well spent.

Feeling like we wanted to get back to the natural wonders of Iceland, the evening before we booked onto snorkelling between the continents with Dive.is to end our holiday.

Getting in to snorkel between the tectonic plates

Getting in to snorkel between the tectonic plates

At 16990 ISK (~£86), it was expensive but totally worth it. They aren’t exaggerating when they say you’ll be swimming in the clearest water on Earth. There isn’t any wildlife to be seen, but the colours are astonishing. You’ll spend between 30-45 minutes in the water, but that’s plenty as it’s absolutely freezing. Make sure to wear thermal underwear if possible, layer up and wear warm socks. It was the perfect end to a holiday in one of the most unusual places on Earth.

Snorkelling between the tectonic plates

Snorkelling between the tectonic plates

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Facilitating my First Retrospective…with the Aid of Balloons

Having worked at the BBC for over a year and a half, I have participated in many retrospectives, run at the end of sprints (2 week iterations in agile scrum projects) or at the end of a project. They are a forum to reflect on what the team thinks is working well, what is not working so well and what could be better. As a result of the meeting, actions (informed by the points and issued raised) are taken forward into the next two weeks or the next project as improvements.

Retrospectives are usually facilitated by the scrum master or project manager. However, my current team takes a round robin approach to selecting the next chair from everyone in the team, whatever their job role.

Last sprint it was my turn, which meant I had to decide on the content of the meeting.

Retrospective Car Activity

Retrospective Car Activity

There are many ways to run a retrospective; every one I’ve been to has been slightly or vastly different. The most common is where team members contribute their thoughts on what the team should ‘keep doing’, ‘stop doing’ and ‘start doing’. Usually pieces of paper with these headings are stuck onto the walls and people write their ideas on sticky notes and place them under the appropriate sections. The stickies are grouped, then discussed. In this case, actions mainly come from ‘start doing’. There are also lots of resources aimed at making retrospectives fun. One of my favourites is the car analogy. Everyone is asked to draw a car they think represents the team and then explain why. You tend to get rusty old cars and missing wheels. Everyone is then asked to enhance their drawings and explain again. Now you see turbo engines, nitro and other sports car features! These are rather generic, but you can also focus on individual areas. By this, I mean you can focus specifically on e.g. improving current issues, stopping bad habits, adding new techniques or resolving blockers. This can be useful for tailoring actions to the current needs of the team.

To decide on the needs of my team, I took a look back at our usual process. The main content of our retrospectives is some mix of activities similar to those mentioned above. From these, we write a bullet pointed list of actions onto an A1 piece of flipboard paper and stick it up next to our agile board. During the next retrospective, we assess the progress made towards each action. Usually, some progress has been made on most actions, but few actually completed and some never even begun. This made me think: is this because the actions aren’t worthwhile enough in the eyes of the team? I.e. do the advantages outweigh the effort of completing the action and is the action’s outcome actually that useful? Consequently, I decided to focus on blockers; as the ‘unblocking’ actions would have a direct, immediate and useful impact on the team, I hoped people would feel more inclined, enthusiastic or even eager to work towards the goals.

To demonstrate my above points, I began the retrospectives by reviewing the most recent actions. I coloured coded the progress made: red for none, yellow for some and green for complete.

Actions

Our usual technique for documenting actions

For my first activity, I used elements from a technique called the timeline. I drew a two week, Monday to Friday timescale and got people to sketch out what they had been working on. This was mainly to remind everyone of their recent work, but also provides a good way to evaluate the length of time spent on different tasks.  I briefly ran through board with this in mind.

Next, I had people think of anything that made those tasks more difficult; issues that blocked progress, slowed down the pace of work or distracted from the task at hand. These were written on sticky notes and placed around the corresponding tasks. Visually, the amount of sticky notes can show tasks (i.e. a release) that had many problems. I talked through each area and asked people to elaborate.

Timeline with Blockers

Timeline with Blockers

I then asked for a volunteer to pick out a blocker they would really like to see unblocked. To the volunteers surprise, I threw a balloon at him and instructed him to blow it up! Balloons you ask? My way of bringing a little fun to the meeting, but, bear with me, they are far more than that. As a group, we discussed and decided on an action for that blocker which was then written on the balloon. Finally I asked my volunteer to also write his name on the balloon. I explained that this assigns him responsibility for the action – not necessarily completing the action himself, but making sure someone does. I believe assigning someone to a particular action, which we haven’t done in the past, is likely to improve the level of progress made towards it.

We repeated this for as many balloons as people had blockers they cared about. Some people took multiple balloons and some took none. I felt this was fair because people were volunteering themselves, not being forced into unwanted extra work. I purposely only took 10 balloons into the retrospective. I wanted to limit the number of actions that emerged so that completing them in two weeks would be realistic. Unfortunately, as time was running out towards the end of the meeting, not all of the actions were fully discussed amongst the team members. It did not occur to me at the time, but it would have been useful to quickly recap each balloon just so that everyone had a clear, common understanding.

My team with our action balloons

My team with our balloons

After the meeting finished, I pinned up each ballon underneath our scrum board. I think the visibility of the actions is another contributing factor to a retrospectives success. Previously, the list was visible but slightly round a corner.

Action balloons under our scrum board

The reason I choose to use balloons: they are a good metaphor for blockers. I used red balloons because the colour is known to signify ‘stop’ or ‘bad’ and placing them beneath the scrum board posed a (somewhat) physical blocker to engaging with the board’s tickets. And of course – the best part – popping the balloons! Completing an action and unblocking the blocker is analogous to that satisfying feeling of deflating the balloon. Once popped, we replaced it with a green card (the colour of ‘go’) detailing what we did to complete the action.

This was the board at the end of the two week sprint. As you can see, not all of the balloons are popped, but there are more completed tasks than usual. What is not obvious is that progress was made (again more than usual) on all but one of them. As an improvement, I would suggest placing small yellow sticky notes (colour for ‘get ready’) next to the balloon for each step of progress made, so the progress is visible and quantifiable.

In retrospect (note the pun), focusing on blockers and using balloons did not have the drastic impact as I had hoped. However, there was a definite enthusiasm to getting those balloons popped and, as stated, more progress and completions than usual.

Overall, I enjoyed running my first retrospective and feel it was a success. We have decided to keep the balloons more generally for all actions as opposed to just blockers.

Thoughtworks ‘Make it Happen’ Event

Recently I attended an event hosted by Thoughtworks called Make it Happen, the same name as the global theme celebrating International Women’s Day 2015 and Women’s History Month.

It consisted of 8 lightening talks from women in the science and technology industry. There were some interesting thoughts which I wanted to summarise with my interpretations.

Sex, Murder, Rape & Apps – Rebecca Rae, Strategy and Insight Lead at Reason Digital

Reason Digital Logo

I have to admit, my intrigue for this talk was one of the main reasons I attended the event! Not at all metaphorical as I had imagined, Rebecca began to talk about Manchester’s red light district. Some statistics revealed that there are approximately 80000 sex workers in the UK, 50% of whom are at high risk of a violent crime such as assault, rape or murder. When these crimes are not reported to police, which is quite usual in this industry, sex workers in Manchester would instead contribute to the ‘dodgy punter’ board. This board resides in the MASH offices and is a place people can report incidents such as descriptions of dangerous clients. Reason Digital, a company that only works on projects that do good and help the vulnerable, thought there must be a better way to distribute this information: by using an app. To my surprise, most sex workers own and utilise smart phones for their day to day activities. Rebecca went on to say that there is not much information on this demographic because they are a private group within the society. Reason Digital needed to know the needs of their clients to provide an appropriate solution. Together with MASH, they went out onto the streets (as the sex workers weren’t inclined to visit the office) and talked to street workers and escorts and visited brothels and saunas. They found out that sex workers wanted a dark background for the app so light did not shine on them (to not draw attention on the street perhaps?). They also specified that the app must be able to be closed quickly so they can check it in between interacting with clients and incase they wanted to keep their occupation private from friends/family. The app was made to help keep users safe by reducing the risk of violent crimes. In doing so, this means less time and money is spent on police investigation, where a reported rape can cost around £100000. It was really interesting to hear about an app being used in an unconventional context. With so many apps and websites focussed on social networking, gaming and entertaining, it’s easy to forget that apps have the potential to impact on so much more.

Life As A Female IT Contractor – Clare Sudbery, Software Developer

Clare began her talk by saying she thought she was going tell us about her life as a female contractor, but that there wasn’t much to stress about her gender; instead she would talk about contracting in general. Not making this distinction is a great sign that things are moving forward for Women in Tech. She only made two points about being female. First that she was recently told there were only 4 female IT contractors in Manchester, though she suspects there must be many more (and I do to0!). Secondly, she doesn’t know if being a woman affects her getting contracts or not and is never sure if the little prejudice she received during her career was just in her head. She went on to ask for audience input into the pros and cons of contracting, but unfortunately couldn’t do the whole list this way due to time restrictions. She didn’t have time to explain all her points, so I’ve added my thoughts to her lists below:

 

Pros
  • Money: more money, less tax.
  • Flexibility / Freedom: i.e. it’s easier to stay off work if your child is ill because there aren’t procedures in place for this for permanent staff.
  • No performance reviews: some people don’t like reviews, but on the other hand they can be useful and help you improve
  • Variety: of projects, companies and locations.
  • Learning: talking to Clare after the event, she said the time when she learnt the least was when she stayed in the same job for 6 years.
  • Positive feedback: you get more positive feedback because you’re applying to more positions. For example, from sending out your CV, getting pitches from companies or agents who want you and from LinkedIn recommendations that she asks for when she leaves a company.
  • Holidays: you can choose when and for how long you want holidays.
  • Politics: you aren’t subject to company politics. For example, aiming for a promotion that managers imply you’ll receive but not getting it due to ‘politics’, cost or last minute changes.
  • Legacy systems: Clare said generally you don’t have to touch as much legacy code as permanent staff. I’m not sure I agree with this as it depends on context – they could bring you in as a contractor because you specialise in a language that an older system uses.
  • Employer comparison: you get to work at lots of different companies so you can see compare them in terms of work and culture. You can also see what it would be like to be permanent staff (including what benefits they get) incase you wanted to stop contracting. Working on different projects, perhaps with different programming languages and technologies, means you find out what it is you like doing the most.
  • Pay per skill: I’m not sure what Clare meant by this, but could it be that as a contractor you have certain skills that are proven with certifications (paid for by the contractor?) which contributes to a contractors higher pay?

Cons

  • No benefits: paid leave, paid sick days, pension contributions, trips/conferences that other employees attend. Think also if you’re off sick with a serious illness for 3 months that this would severally affect your budget for the year.
  • Job insecurity: you worry about getting sacked as you can be asked to leave at the drop of a hat. You have to think ahead and budget accordingly.
  • Your next contract: you can take holiday gaps between contracts (brilliant!) but never do for the fear of not getting another contract.
  • Paperwork: you have to do tax forms etc yourself or pay someone (like a contracting agent) to do it.
  • Isolation: you’re not usually seen as ‘one of the gang’ in work and have to make extra effort to fit in. Contracting can sometimes be lonely.
  • Efficiency: you are expected to hit the ground running, so you need to be confident in your skills and that you can pick things up quickly.

I’ve always worked with contractors but have never understood what it entails. Clare gave a really blunt and honest review of her experiences and was more than willing to answer questions after the event. I liked the fact that she started by saying what people were probably thinking – “yeah, I like money”!

A Lesson in Customer Service – Dominika Phillips-Blackburn, Senior Business Analyst at Cooperative Group

Dominika told a fascinating story about when providing good customer service improved a situation she found herself in. Briefly,Dominika's Pinterst Board "Chairs" she listed a chair for sale on eBay but accidentally offered free postage. Accepting her mistake, she knew that even with the large postage cost she would still make a small profit. However, the person who bought the chair lived in a very remote part of England where postage costs would cost more than the chair itself! The customer demanded that the chair be sent as specified in the listing so Dominika did her best to find a reasonable postage quote. After no success she hand wrote a sincere letter explaining the situation she had got herself into and asked if the buyer would come to some sort of compromise. Once the buyer understood the severity of the situation, they were more than willing to pick the chair up from a more easily reachable location. Through this transparent communication, the buyer has since bought 3 more chairs! Dominika expressed how important and useful good customer service can be and said if people can understand why something went wrong, they more more amenable to finding a resolution – something that is very applicable to a working environment.

Getting Out There – Kirsty Hunter, Developer at Swinton

Kirsty described the events, mostly technical, she has attended as part of her work and in her social life e.g. Microsoft Ignite (formally TechEd). It has helped her improve as a software developer both technically and by boosting her confidence through the relationships and friendships she has formed. She suggested meetup.com to discover event listings and to follow The Krewe on Twitter and Facebook, a network of people who made her feel welcome at a conference and she has kept in touch with. I felt that events really must improve personal development as people she met previously have encouraged her to give her first public talk, which was this one!

Design with Purpose – Katie Finney & Maria Mayor, Co-founders of Amity hcd

Having had experience running their own company, Katie and Maria have identified what makes a project successful for them. They found that staff were more engaged when they were solving a problem that really matters to people – that makes a difference to the client and the users. They are designing software with a purpose. To do this successfully:
  1. Alignment: the developers should understand the clients motivation so that everyone aligns on purpose.
  2. Decisions: in an ideal world, don’t make decisions based on budget or sales. From UCD (User Centred Design) always think about the user’s needs and what would improve their lives.
  3. People: work with people with the same motivations and values as yourself so you are all aiming for a product to be created for the same purpose.

Agile: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly – Sarah Glanville, Scrum Master at Sky

it’s okay to stand still, just don’t stand still with your eyes shut

As Sarah recently became Scrum Master, it led her to reflect on aspects of projects she has worked on in the past.
  • The bad: when one team member is overpowering, dictatorial and controlling. Although strong, confident people are needed to lead teams, they must also listen and take other people’s opinions on board.
  • The ugly: when teams reach a state where they think everything is running perfectly. This doesn’t sound so bad, but it can mean that the team stops improving. As time goes by, what the team once thought was the best way to approach something might have developed or other techniques could have emerged and gone unnoticed. Sarah used the phrase “it’s okay to stand still, just don’t stand still with your eyes shut” which is a phrase I’ll remember!
  •  The good: when you have a team who all communicate effectively. She noted this is uncommon which is why we need Scrum Master’s in the first place!

Intersections & Collaborations – Florence Okoye, Mobile Consultant at National Grid

Florence told us that she has interests in a diverse range of subjects from technology and comics to history and religion. She explained how she combined these topics through her research, such as in her paper Does Africa Dream of Androids. Give her a Google as she has some great concepts and ideas.

#choicesTELfringe – a hackathon with a twist – Eva Barabas, Software Engineer at NHS Choices

Eva told us about the troubles she faced when a hackathon got postponed and people had already organised their travel etc. Read all about it in Eva’s Blog Post, as she can explain it much better than I! It was a great example of turning a negative into a positive – perhaps more of a positive than it otherwise would have been.


In Summary…

What was clear after hearing these women speak, was that we all want to work on something that matters, the makes a difference and that we care about. We come along to these events because we want to be part of something, learn and maybe contribute. Broadl, and rather soppily, everyone wants to love (what they work on) and be loved (for what they have created). It was also noticeable that very little related to being a female; instead it was about the job or the hobby. +1 for WiT!

Broadcast TECH Young Talent Awards – Women in Tech

Laura Howarth-Kirke winning Women in Tech AwardLast month I was thrilled to win at the Broadcast TECH Young Talent Awards in the category of Women in Tech! I am pleased to know that the talks I give to younger people about my career are being found useful. I also feel it’s another step, albeit a small step, to a world where the phrase “women in tech” is no longer needed.

I strongly believe that both males and females are needed to simultaneously influence the perceptions of both boys and girls. With coding introduced to the curriculum and many organisations now hosting, running or attending educational activities, an equal gender workplace will be a generational shift. For those women already well into their career path is when I think women in tech groups are most useful. They are an inviting place to meet other females inside and outside their organisation or field, to network and/or to make friends.

At present, I believe younger children and adults are well catered for, but think the process for those in between could be improved. The common perception across events I have attended is that girls become disinterested in STEM during their teenage years due to peer pressure (partly wanting inclusion with friends) and boys snapping up the tech roles in group work. For this reason and in my experience, events run for girls of this age tend to be all female participants run by all female hosts. This has its pros and cons. Girls get experience performing tech roles, but without boys being present working in the non tech roles, how will a mutual agreement on roles be reached when boys are reintegrated. Girls probably feel more comfortable around their female peers and role-model hosts, but how will the girls cope in an office environment where, in the present day, most of their colleagues and seniors will most likely be male. I think both genders should host these types of events, to show that it’s absolutely normal for both genders to work side by side in whatever career they choose. It could also involve some element of mixed gender team work where each member has the opportunity to try each tech/non tech role round-robin style. I’m sure this is already being done but I’d love it to be more widely promoted. I also sometimes worry that younger boys, even occasionally adult males, feel neglected or excluded due to women in tech events which isn’t going to help the cause and is all the more reason to get them involved as participants or hosts. Overall, I think the industry is doing a great job in this area and if I can help or inspire just a few people, I’m happy to be a part of it.

2014-11-06 22.56.57face2014-11-06 22.58.25

Back to the awards – it was hosted at BAFTA in London and I was privileged enough to peak inside the Princess Anne Theatre where the judges watch the films to be rated. The award ceremony was hosted in part by George Bevir, Facilities and Tech Editor at Broadcast magazine. The start of the evening was hosted by Alexis Conran, host of The Real Hustle, who told crazy stories of filming the TV show, as well as performing some magic tricks! It was a very fun night and also a nice change to be able to network with production people as opposed to techy people. After a nerve racking wait through lots of cheering for other awards, it was finally my category. Alexis read out about the person who had won: “It shows her as a champion and a role model for women moving into new technologies, not just traditional tech, in an industry that has always been male-dominated” and then passed over to Natalie Samson, Awards and Events Producer at Women in Film and Television UK to present the award. I was absolutely elated that it was me – especially with that fantastic testimonial! After shaking hands and having my picture taken, I was congratulated by many people walking back to my table, expressing genuine enthusiasm for women in tech, which made me very hopeful for the future. I also received a winners booklet with a small article about me (and other winners) and a huge picture of my face!

Check out this Storify about the evening.

My next event is will be a talk to high school teachers about careers available at the BBC after studying in STEM, so look out for a post about that in late January.

Reality TV is Trash TV?

“I have just lost all respect for you” is the reaction I usually receive when I proclaim my fondness of reality TV shows such as Big Brother and The Only Way Is Essex. As if, for some reason, I should ‘know better’.

big brother

From what I have witnessed, it is often the case that the people who react in this way have watched very little of the genre and are basing their opinion on ill-founded preconceptions. I’ve had people say to me that I’m too intellectual to watch Big Brother and doing so would surely lower my IQ. I have never understood this because we can learn things from reality TV; what better way is there to learn than through observation?

Reality TV is a broad term stemming from talent based shows such as The X Factor to ‘fly-on-the-wall’ ‘documentaries’ such as The Osbournes. It is the latter that seems to bear a problem with my peers. They say I should be getting on with my own life instead of watching other people’s. But I don’t agree. Shows like this give a normal, university student like me the chance to see how other people live. I especially enjoy Big Brother because I get to learn about different personalities and perspectives. Okay, so the producers of Big Brother obviously choose controversial characters who they hope will clash and therefore make good television, but I still get an insight into people who I otherwise might be unlikely to meet. From a psychological point of view, I find it interesting to watch how people interact with one another and how they react to stressful situations. I often get the feeling that people think I’m gullible, but I am fully aware that it’s all edited and what I’m seeing may not be a perfectly accurate representation of real life.

And then came the ‘fake reality’ genre. Starting in the USA with The Hills, this blur of real life and scripted television has spawned shows in the UK such as The Only Way is Essex and Made In Chelsea. Why would people dislike this genre? Is it because some (if not all) of it is scripted? Is it because they feel they are being lied to – tricked into believing it is all reality? If so, isn’t it comparable to watching a soap like Coronation Street? It is rare I watch an episode and find myself wondering if the scene is real or not. I take it with a pinch of salt. Whether it’s real or not, I’m enjoying it. After all, isn’t that one of the main purposes of television?

There has been concern that shows like this are giving young females the wrong impression of social interaction between all female groups. According to this article on what reality TV is teaching teenage girls, females who watch shows like this are more likely to think gossiping, being catty and fighting with female friends is the norm. But don’t other TV shows convey this too, albeit maybe not to the same extent. Maybe this isn’t the fault of reality TV, but the lack of education towards how ‘real’ these type of shows really are.

Maybe, being the powerful communication tool that it is, TV could provide this education, being the solution to it’s own problem.

A PC Gamer’s Take on the Future

For PC gamers, a gaming rig is like the nerd equivalent of a fashion statement.

For game developers, however, it makes striving for compatibility a much bigger challenge than matching shirts and pants.

I thought that metaphor was so good when I read it, that I just had to share it. However, I also thought this was absolutely hilarious:

Don't Drink and Derivebut my friends say I’m wrong.

Anyway, the quotes are from an article I was reading on Engadget about the difficulty for game developers to make their game compatible with all the different possible setups and configurations around for the PC today. It got me thinking how it would be so much easier if PCs were more like games consoles and if they ever will be. A few days ago, it was 12 minutes until dinner was about to be ready, so I suggested to Ash (boyfriend/flatmate) to play F1 on the Xbox. By the time we signed in, loaded it up and set up the multiplayer, we had about 8 minutes left, time for one circuit.

->Player 1 has disconnected.

The batteries were dead so we found a some replacements. Why is it you can never find the right batteries in the battery draw and always end up using the ones out of the remote control?

So, with 5 minutes to go, we fly down the straight and battle it out on the first corner.

->Player 2 has disconnected.

Dinner was ready and we remembered why we never play on the Xbox and really only use it to access the stora box or watch iPlayer. This is because we each have our own gaming rig upstairs, with better graphics, surround sound headphones and mic, and most importantly a keyboard and mouse. Here’s hoping the Xbox “720” introduces some kind of WASD keypad and mini mouse. I think you gain a certain sense of control and engrossment that is lost with a thumb stick. Plus I bet it would port over a good number of “medium-core” PC gamers who can’t afford or don’t want to keep updating to better graphics cards etc.

After reading this article, I can better understand why Rockstar games decided against releasing GTA V for PC. I hope they change their mind otherwise other companies might start following suit. It obviously takes a lot of work, before and continuing indefinitely after release, to make it available for as many people as possible. So I think in the future PC’s are going to have to standardise somewhat, with fewer different brands and core technologies. The article also mentioned self customisation to be contributing to the compatibility problems so logically this must also be dampened. Though, this doesn’t only just go for the PC. There are so many new technologies around. So many different protocols, data formats and hardware. And everyone is trying to integrate everything with everything else. Surely the only solution is to decide upon a set standard and stick to it. Or as I though when I was taking my Distributed Systems module at university, “if only they could shut down the internet and just start again”. But they can’t. On top of this, user’s are doing the opposite. Now, more than ever, people are creating things in their bedroom, posting on the web and passing their creations on to other people. So complete standardisation will never happen. But I think something will have to change soon or the world of technology will either become unmanageable or companies will find it too difficult to make new things work.

As a finishing note, I’d like to leave you with a thought. Technology is one of those things that we imagine will be with us now for the rest of time – like electricity or cars. I wonder what the next thing like that will be. In 200 years, everyone could be travelling to work in personal flight suits or online shopping delivered through teleporters. You never know.

And so it begins…

Hi there,

This, as you will have guessed, this is my first blog post. I’ve always wanted to start a blog but thought “who’s going to be interested in what I have to say?”. However, after much encouragement at a recent careers event, I took the plunge into the blogging world.

Saying that, I have previously blogged for my university (The University of Manchester Computer Science – Student Blogs), but only now branched out on my own.

I hope this blog can provide people with some helpful information about university, computer science and technology. I especially hope I can encourage more females into the field by sharing my experiences.

Please feel free to contact me and I hope you enjoy reading my future posts.