The Information Systems Consultant

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The Information Systems Consultant

Alex is in her mid-thirties and started her Masters course in 1999. I interviewed her three times as she was one of my pilot interviewees. The first interview took place in October 2000, the second in April 2002 and the last in April 2003.

When I first interviewed Alex, she was working as a ‘support systems manager’ for a local authority. I interviewed her at the council’s offices. She managed around fifteen staff providing secretarial, administrative and postal services to the division.
When I interviewed Alex for the second time it was at her home where she now worked form as a ‘Business Consultant’. Our final interview also took place in her home. She had handed her notice in at her hated consultant’s job and was going to do some temping for her old employer, the Council, while she worked out what she was going to do.
I was born in Catterick, which is an army town, in a crummy little council house. I was mainly brought up by my grandparents, because my mum had to work. My mum did a lot of different jobs when we were young, ranging from dinner lady at our school, working in a shoe shop, to secretarial work. My dad has always been a lorry driver, so he was out on the road a lot. Mum would take us to Grandma’s and would leave us there for the day. Then my mum made a decision that Catterick wasn’t the place to bring us up. There were no prospects for us. So we relocated to here and I started secondary school. I have got an older sister and a younger brother, two years between each of us, and we moved here when I was about twelve. Then, in my options year, Mum and Dad separated and got divorced.
Alex’s parents struggle to improve their standard of living and provide better opportunities for their children but this contributes to the break-up of their marriage.
They just grew apart; Mum wanted more out of life. My dad was always on the road. He was trying to give Mum what she wanted, a good life for us. We hardly ever saw him as he was always travelling. I think one of the things that really sent their marriage off the rails was that my dad thought it would be a good idea if my grandparents moved to York with us and so he took the lead in arranging for them to come and live in our house with us and that just created enormous tension.
As a result of the divorce, the family fragments, leaving Alex with her mother. A move into a smaller flat meant a long journey to school contributing to her poor O level results.
For all the rest of my years, I have stuck by Mum. My sister went off and lived with her boyfriend and my brother went up to Scotland, where my dad relocated. We had to move to a really crummy little two bedroomed flat and travel to school on our bicycles across town. I didn’t do as well as I should have done, but I also didn’t get much guidance at school. When I went to the careers advisor he said ‘Oh hairdressing!’, and I can’t stand touching other people’s heads. Hairdressing or nursing, no thank you!
I hadn’t got a job and my mum was really struggling, money-wise, but I didn’t just want to accept any old job. So I said to Mum that if I couldn’t find a decent job to start with I would go back to school for a year and do a business course.
After her course, Alex begins work in an insurance company as an office junior. She realises that this work is easy and so she gets a better job in administration at the council. In pursuing promotion for extra money, Alex discovers that she enjoys having responsibility and being a manager, but also that she will need qualifications in order to be able to move into more senior jobs.
I needed to earn more money and that was a big motivator. I wasn’t going to fall to the same fate as Mum and end up having to struggle the way she was. I wanted to be able to earn enough money to have a house of my own and have that security before thinking of anything else in life. So I just kept focusing on work and I really enjoyed it for many many years.
Alex stayed with her mother until her mid twenties and then managed to buy a house with a friend.
I lived with Mum until I was about 24. It wasn’t difficult at all, and then I bought a house with a friend, because we were both struggling to buy a property on our own. The relationship broke down with her and so I sold my share of the house, so I came back home and supported Mum again. Then, for a while, I was with a boyfriend who already had a house, so I had plenty of space, I didn’t need to buy my own place and then when that didn’t work out I thought ‘I need to do something, I need to get my own place.’
Alex next told me the story of how she became a manager.
It was when I was in housing and I had set up all the administration arrangements for the tenants’ choice scheme and the assistant director asked me if I would apply for the support service manager’s job. I took that job on and I had about thirteen staff and millions of pounds of budget and I thought ‘God, this is great!’ I was only about 21 at the time but I thought ‘Yes!’ It was quite a testing time but I swam, I didn’t sink, and so I thought ‘Well, I will have some more of this’.
This successful time in her early career and her growing self-confidence does not last as she ends up managing a team of women administrative staff that she feels little affinity with.
The team itself had gone through a lot of managers and they were just a pain in the bum, most of them, a really miserable bunch. I managed to improve things a bit whilst I was there but I was tired of dealing with bickering women, because it was managing a kindergarten, not a team of intelligent staff. They were there to get a bit of pin money and have a gossip and do as little work as possible. I didn’t want to be constantly having to crack the whip and support them when they were in tears because their husband had done something wrong or because they were feeling post-natal. They were dreadful, like women drivers! I hate them!
Alex went on to explain why she pursued management qualifications.
I was working at a small neighbourhood office, and the job wasn’t challenging at all, so I asked if I could do a course. They funded me to do the IAM diploma at the college. I got a distinction, I surprised myself. I suppose I have always had a lack of confidence in this, what’s up here. So then it was ‘Well, I have done that, I will do the next stage, the Masters’.
Alex completed her Masters and then decided to apply for a part-time post-graduate teaching certificate (PGCE) in order to pave the way for a change of career. She was then presented with a dilemma when a supplier organisation offered her a consultant’s job.
So I had got enrolled on this course and then I got offered this job with lots of money and a car and everything. I had always fancied doing a consultancy job. I felt like ‘I have succeeded’. I felt quite a lot of peer pressure as well. Colleagues and friends were saying, ‘Now you have got your MSc, all these doors will open up to you and you will have no problem getting a job, it will be great.’
Alex takes the consultancy job and turns down the PGCE, rationalising it to herself, at the time, as a way of widening her experience and so making her more marketable when she does eventually become a lecturer. However, she comes to bitterly regret her decision.
I thought ‘I have still got my ultimate goal of wanting to teach but I need to get a bit more experience.’ I thought ‘Well I will just do this job for a couple of years’ but the reality is that doing this job has turned everything in my life completely upside down.
Alex was also attracted by the extra money, partly because her boyfriend was financially dependant on her, although ironically her prolonged absences from home contributed to their break up.
He didn’t want me to take it because it meant I would be away from home a lot, but I said ‘I am only going to do it for a couple of years at the most’. I don’t want to do a job where you are on the road all the time but I felt it was something that I needed to do.
Alex goes on to explain how her regret at her decision began almost immediately.
I was ready to walk out after the second week. In my first week I went down to be trained. I’d go down every Monday morning and stay through until Friday and come home Friday night. I was sitting in a little hotel room by myself, not knowing anyone, it was absolutely horrible.
My new boss, I didn’t take to her. In my second week I arrived at ten past nine. She said, ‘You’re late aren’t you?’ ‘Aren’t you supposed to have a meeting with this other guy?’ She did this in front of everybody. I had been up since 5.30 in the morning, driving down, with the prospect of another week away from home and I was just really choked by that. She has got a really loud booming voice and she has conversations about my colleagues to other people that are overheard.
Following the first three months of initial training, Alex worked mostly from home with only occasional trips to Head Office and so the friction with her boss and other consultants lessened but her frustration and disappointment with what turns out to be unskilled and repetitive work grew.
They say I am a business consultant but the reality of it is not very glamorous. I am told where I have to go, I have no choice. For example, yesterday I was talking to a company about how they were going to use the system for doing contacts and referrals in social care. Then you map all of that onto a business model document. A lot of it is really tedious. The nice bit is doing the questioning and probing but then you have to sit and work through lists of code tables and what definitions are going to go into all these budgets and that is really tedious.
Alex also misses the camaraderie of being in an office with colleagues.
I work at home by myself and it is hard to keep yourself motivated. If I go to a customer site then I am still on my own because I’m not part of their team, I am just a consultant going in. I’m going down to Milton Keynes, but that is only once a month for a team meeting and apart from that, when I am on the road, I am sitting in hotel rooms night after night by myself.
Alex then gives way to complete despair about the work she is doing, unable to find a positive side to it despite the encouragement of her friends and former colleagues.
I hate what has happened to me and how it destroyed my relationship with my boyfriend. It has made me really miserable and I feel that I have been pre-menstrual for the last six months. But I think I have got to try it. I have got to give it a chance. My former colleagues say ‘Give it a chance, give it three months’, and then ‘Give it four months’ or now ‘Six months’ but I just hate doing what I am doing.
We return to the Masters course, which by now is a year in the past, and discuss what effect it has had on her.

I’m not so sure, it seems a long time ago now, I don’t know. Doing the Masters certainly gave me the confidence to know I could do a top job, as it were, being a top business woman, but having tried it, the reality is depressing and work isn’t everything. I now know that I want other things in life rather than just a fab job.
Although Alex would like to return to the idea of teaching she is not sure how she is going to escape from her current job.
The difficult thing is that I can’t give up work entirely because I need to pay the mortgage and so, if I did it part time, I would need to be in some sort of teaching role to be able to enrol on it. It would be very difficult also because of the travel in this job. If I can get another job then I will definitely do it. I have thought about ringing the council. The director of housing is keen to get me back. The money is not as good though and I would be taking a couple of big steps back, but at least I could just work in an office with a good team and have a home life and be able to pursue the course.
We then went on to discuss the future, if Alex could overcome her present problems what kind of work and life would she like to have?

I was never one of those people who knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, but definitely working with others, working with young people. I had thought that I was going to enjoy a long happy future with my boyfriend. I was looking forward to being able to enjoy lots more holidays, lots more playing and then, in the long term, to have kids. At the moment I don’t feel at all maternal. It is not something that I think I want to go through life without experiencing but now that has all gone out the window.

Alex seems to feel that her decision to pursue a ‘flash’ job rather than do what she now believes she really wanted to do has led to the punishment of her private life falling apart.

I haven’t had time for him. I haven’t had time for my relationship because I have always been away. I have what, on the surface, looks like a brilliant job and people see me and I look flash and I have got my posh suit on and I am carrying a lap top and I have got my flash car. I go into sites and people think I am really important but the reality is that the job doesn’t tax my brain at all. It doesn’t challenge me. The outcome has been that I have lost somebody that I really love, so it is a high price. It is a lesson that I would rather not have learnt.
When I met Alex a year later, things had improved. She had taken the decision to pack in her hated consultancy job.
Work continued to be awful, but all my friends and family wouldn’t let me resign. They kept telling me it was a reaction to me and my boyfriend splitting up. I managed to stick it for six months. Then, after being on holiday for a couple of weeks in Canada, I just thought ‘I am not doing this anymore’ and resigned that week, in a fit of frustration and emotion and so on. I just resigned and I had absolutely nothing to go to or anything.
Alex sees having handed her notice in as a turning point though, a decisive intervention to bring a disastrous stage of her life to an end.
You know one of my friends said to me, after I had handed in my resignation, ‘I think you have made more progress in two weeks than you have in the last year’. I have learnt that I don’t want to do this work. I spent so many years dreaming of being a consultant but now I know that that doesn’t suit me. Which I suppose has got to be seen as a positive, that I know what I don’t want to do.
Alex had also managed to fix herself up with work.
I posted my resignation on the Monday and, straightaway, I rang my old director at the council and said ‘I am leaving, have you got any work that I could come and do?’ He rang back and said ‘We want you to come for a minimum of three months doing projects. We have got lots of work that we want you to do. Don’t go and sign on with a temping agency.’ And so I thought, ‘Maybe I am not completely crap after all. Maybe I can do other jobs.’
Although Alex is relieved at having a job to go to, she is also pleased that it is not a return to a permanent nine-to-five, as she likes the idea of being a self-employed IT contractor.
The fact that it is only for a few months will give me chance to think things through. I am looking forward to next week as I am now self employed, so there are lots of other sites I can work for. I am thinking of using this three months to sort out more contracting work. It’s about freedom, because I am not bothered about making loads of money. I just want to make enough to keep my house going, have a few holidays a year and keep my car running and stuff, but not have to work a 50 hour week. Who knows what doors are going to open? But this is the best plan that I can ever have, to have a go at things with my company, working for myself, so I think I should grasp it.
We went on to talk about how she would rebuild her social life and about relationships. Alex was still reluctant to get back into a relationship given another recent break-up.
I could build up my social life again and then I will be happier at home as well but my Prince Charming has not turned up. I have had my fingers burnt again, fairly recently, so no, I can’t be doing with men. I would like to share my life with somebody. I would like to have my little partner around supporting me and praising me. It would take the strain of having to do everything yourself, and certainly would take the strain off financially, but I am used to it now. I am pretty fine really; I have been on my own all this time. It is very hard to let anyone else in. I think I will probably be on my own for quite a long time yet. But, you know, there is still a part of me that would like to have a family as well.
We went on to talk about her family, as they disappeared from her story very early on.
There is only my sister who has done the right thing, got married and had kids. She is an artist, so she just paints at home. My brother, he split up with his wife, he stayed here for a few months. I talk to my dad every single day. He was quite poorly over Christmas. He drives taxis up in Scotland but he hates the job, as you can imagine. Mum? I just go round for tea, once a week. I don’t speak to her very often.
We then went on to talk about where Alex would like to be in the future.
I would like to be working part time, just a few little jobs here and there but quality work that stimulates me. I would have a nice country house with a nice horse in the field and motorbike in the garage and family around. My dream used to be having that city pad with all the mod cons and the single lifestyle but that isn’t what I want anymore. It is too lonely, and I don’t like myself, so I don’t want to spend a lot of time by myself. I think when I am on my own I just get obsessive about stupid trivialities.

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