Saturday, September 15, 2007

End of a Department

On Friday 14th September, my former department, the IT Education Unit at the University of Glasgow was formally no more. We've known for several years that changes were afoot, but the University's processes were so slow that by the time that they finally caught up with us, we'd given up on them and thought that nothing would ever change.

It was in the spring of this year that we got formal notification that the department would be closed down. At this point, no mention of the staff was being made, although the "functions" of the department – primarily student IT training – would be taken up by other units in the University.

After some intense negotiation by both ourselves and our union we finally got (what seemed to me like grudging) acknowledgement that steps should be taken to try and ensure that staff were redeployed rather than just fired. After what seemed like an endless series of meetings with HR and management, we persuaded them that we were still the right people to perform the function that they were starting to recognise was still much more important than they had believed.

However, during the process, I commented to my head of department that I would be interested in being redeployed to Management Information Services, since they develop and maintain pretty much all of the University's important corporate information systems and is the closest thing to a "software shop" that the University has. My HoD duly noted this and said that he'd contact the head of MIS. In the mean time, I was (having more or less given up on our PDP system after having been told that it wasn't going to be taken up) tidying up and refactoring my flagship application: ObSys, our course application and management system. ObSys is one of the oldest applications that I had developed at the ITEU, and was creaking a bit at the seams. Although there were no changes at the user level, I changed a lot under the hood to make it more maintainable in future.

A couple of weeks later, I had a series of meetings with people in MIS, to discuss my skills and what I could bring to the department. This was a turning point for me, since it cemented the idea of working for these guys rather than going to the Computing Service, which is where I had been angling for before. I also brought this up in my meetings with our HR manager and he noted it as a formal preferred choice. A couple of weeks later (we're now into the end of June), most of the department (which consists, at the time that all this is happening, of five members, down from our dizzy heights of double that, when we were expanding like mad) got letters from HR formally offering us redeployed posts. I was to be redeployed into MIS, but to be spending a portion of my time maintaining ObSys, since it would be required for at least another year, and most of my colleagues were redeployed into the Computing Service to continue their work on the IT Literacy Programme (now renamed IT Training for Students), taking on other duties as required. This didn't happen for only one member of the department, and he opted for early retirement.

The department theoretically continued to exist until the middle of September, as final administration work was carried out to wind it up, but all the staff, bar the one who opted for early retirement, left at the start of August (or as soon as getting back from holiday, in my case) to move to their new roles. Hence, I've been ensconced in a turret in the main building for just under a month now. I've been given a small project to start with: rewrite the car parking permits administration system (and no, I can't get you a permit) to introduce me to the department and its working practices. The people all seem nice, although I still can't remember faces and names yet: after working in a department of five people, moving to a department with over forty is a pretty huge leap. They are awfully keen on documentation though: I spent two weeks writing requirements, use cases and specifications before I got to write a single line of code, but it's all to the good of my personal development, I suspect.

What I miss the most in my turret is the camaraderie of my old colleagues. We were not only a very close knit team, but over the six years that I was working with them, we became close friends. We knew each others' foibles, could wind each other up (I could sell them TBD!) and we could wile away long teabreaks with conversations ranging from politics to art to the current fortunes of Partick Thistle, to someone's favourite Doctor Who episode to economic theory to music. Not that we're losing touch altogether, of course, we've been having regular lunches to keep in touch, and I still talk to some of them for work.

Six years is a long time to work anywhere though, and ITEU was my first job. I have a lot of fond memories from that department. Rest in Peace, your legacy lives on.

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Impossible Dreams

I've just discovered that Impossible Dreams by Tim Pratt won this year's Hugo Award for best short story. I think this is fantastic – this is far and away my favourite of the nominees this year, it's just a brilliant story. If you haven't encountered it yet, you can read it at Asimov's Science Fiction or listen to it on Escape Pod. It's a fantastic story and it deserved the recognition.

The other winners can be found here and you can read the other nominated stories here.

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