“So, what are you up to, these days?”

This is the end of the W3C TPAC week (technical plenary and advisory committee meetings, our yearly mass), in Lisbon. It was stressful –a bit, but also very rewarding.

As I was prepping Wednesday for a public address, a participant came up to me to greet me and chat. He recounted how I had helped him with the W3C Incubator Group he was running years ago (they are the former version of W3C Community Groups, which we deployed in 2012.) He went on saying how I had shared with him some aspirations to do different things at work and that he should tell my boss I was helpful as it might help me.

I don’t recall telling him that, nor thinking that at all, but I trust his memory more than mine. He continued, “So, what are you up to these days?” I showed him my badge as though it was going to give more strength and validity to my point and said “Well, I’m now the head of W3C Marketing and Communications.”

The puzzled look on his face was really priceless. Surprised and amused. “Thank you,” I added.

My new job: first impressions

Your mission, should you decide to accept it

The W3C CEO phoned me late January with a job offer I could not refuse. My first reaction was to run away, of course. What, acting Head of Marketing and Communications at W3C? Why me? Who else if not me; I was going to be the only full-time person remaining in this team.

That isn’t the fullest representation. I have been in this team for 10 years and 16 in the Consortium; I have both historical corporate knowledge and a better insight of the job than would a new recruit. Also, I was readily available.

I had twenty hours to think about it, sleep time included, and come up with a yes or no. My mind was already made; I could still run away if it didn’t work. Or not, and simply go back to what I was doing before. So, I was going to do that! (Image below via Andrei Sambra, for April Fools day)

cat meme: deal smells fishy, where do I sign?

Bittersweet February

I thought how big the shoes to fill were; an impossible accomplishment. I focused on what I would bring, and how to leverage past practices that I had witnessed without ever paying great attention. I felt dwarfed by the gigantic responsibilities and tasks ahead. After all, this was a position I never thought about for myself.

I thought with much guilt about immediate commitments such as a family vacation which was going to start almost right after a week of travel and meetings in Tokyo. Basically, that gig was going to start without me. How very atypical to begin a new job by a week to wrap-up as much as possible and prepare for travel and meetings, by a week in near-isolation as meetings and meeting-related work takes place, and by two weeks incommunicado touring Japan. So early February, my predecessor stepped down, and covered for me impeccably till I came back. Fast forward to March 2015.

March was brutal

March was brutal. I returned fully rested from an excellent fortnight of quality time with my loved ones, having appropriately kept my mind off work, while bracing myself for the next big thing.

  1. Loads more e-mail. I unsubscribed from some lists but subscribed to a bigger bunch.
  2. Meetings as a heartbeat. 10 to 15 hours of teleconferences and one-to-one meetings each week.
  3. Time sink. If all goes as planned, this is time well invested. Early start of work days, as usual, but days then dragged into the nights. I chose to give myself a hard stop: midnight every day, through May at most.

What I learned

I realised in the first week that I couldn’t do all I wanted. I had massively underestimated the amount of time I would have (cf. list above), and overestimated my ability to organise myself and the amount I could deliver.

When I told my CEO, this was the quote he laconically reminded me of:

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” ― Bill Gates

What I realised next, was that the more I wanted to achieve the fastest I was. I have always prided myself for being a keen optimiser of processes, but in this case it was different. It was partly due to setting unreasonably high goals in order to get as many done as possible, but primarily thanks to a sharper understanding of things that had suddenly become mine. The closest analogy is a flip being switched and light shining in a formerly dark room. I take informed decisions quicker, the big picture I see is bigger, this is all quite encouraging.

The amount of required reading is staggering as I move from operations into strategy. I expect this will subside as this is partly necessary as I’m wrapping my head around new things, new expectations, new concepts, etc.

In two months I hired three people part-time, shifted into different and new gears, identified our next priorities and planned for as many as possible, handed over most of my former job duties, and, I have not freaked out too much.

Doing something else –but what?

These days, I wish I knew other things so I could consider a career change. Instead, I often long for something else, brood, and sweep the thought away to do what I have to do, because that is a better use of time and energy.

I suspect it would be easier if I knew what else I’d like to do. Even better if I could readily do other things. As to learning new things, well, I don’t feel like I’m up to the effort, and I have not the faintest idea what.

I like my work, however, and so find puzzling that I should yearn for something else. The work is varied, challenging and interesting, the people are wonderful, the mission is a constant inspiration.

Perhaps it’s the long hours. Budgets have been shrinking, and so has the size of our team. Our workload, on the other hand hasn’t. Quite the opposite, it seems. Perhaps it’s the fact I have been around almost 16 years. I have been so lucky to progress in several teams and assume various positions. I’ve been in the team I’m in now for almost 10 years, full time for 7 years, and I have done so many different things and am doing so many other different things that it is truly mind-blowing. No, what I mean is the absolute time it represents.

The Consortium is twenty years old. It’s marvelous it’s still there, and its agenda is full to the brim. If I were to change jobs, wouldn’t it be perfect if it were before I’m in my forties?

Aha! I get it. This is a sort of mid-life work crisis, I’m having. Perhaps.

I work for a neutral intermediary

I follow the International Committee of the Red Cross on Twitter and they twitted this earlier today:

@ICRC: Our role as a “neutral intermediary” is at the heart of #humanitarian action. Our director of operations explains: [link]

Original Message:

The main part of their micro-post, “neutral intermediary” is at the heart of #humanitarian action, particularly resonated with me for several reasons, that I want to attempt to articulate in this post of what I did at one point as a hobby and how, in a way, some choices, people and events led me back to it.

My years with the French Red Cross

In my late teenage years I enrolled at the French Red Cross and during several years –until I started university– I participated in social, medical, training, fund-raising and first aid actions. It occupied my weekends, almost all my holiday time and several week evenings. I was very committed. I came to the Red Cross spurred by my twin brother who had recently become involved. It sounded useful and fun.

It was indeed useful and fun. Even sorting clothes was fun. It was daunting; several piles of garments and shoes, tall as dunes, dumped in the vast depot next to the offices, that we had to plough through during hours. But at the end of the day (that is, late at night) we felt we had accomplished a useful action. Clothes and shoes, categorised and packed, were ready to be picked and handed off somewhere else. My friends and I would find a bar open till late for coffee and drinks, sometimes a game of cards, but mostly bonding.

I met all kinds of people, from all walks of life, most of them interesting, some of them inspiring –students like me, nurses, police officers, business people, house wives, etc. I learned to give first aid, to operate a radio, to drive an ambulance (in particular to park it), to lead a team of first-aid workers, to cook for a crowd, to identify priorities, and to put things into perspective. I saw, heard, and experienced things that made me fully aware how lucky I was, and what a fine life mine was.

I don’t know if I was particularly gifted or actually good at it (I felt I was good), but my satisfaction was such that I wanted to make this my job. There even was a school I thought I might attend, Bioforce, which “specialises in ‘support functions’ (logistics, project coordination, administration and finance, human resources…) and in the field of water supply and sanitation.”

I didn’t attend that school. I went to a local university instead, embarking on a different path. A few years later I looked for a job. I was a temp for a while. I worked as a clerk in a British law firm, although I tried very hard to wiggle out of this, as soon as I saw the place and realised the work conditions were going to be terrible. I passed the one interview I so wanted to fail. Thankfully it was a short mission.

Discovering the world of a Research Lab

I got my next job by luck. A friend of mine, whom I had met while studying in Edinburgh, let me know she knew someone whose mother worked with someone who needed a temp for a semester. Two actually. And my friend was on the market too, so it was perfect for the two of us. We both interviewed on the same day. We had been pre-assigned a position but after interviewing they changed their mind and swapped. She joined the administrative and legal department at INRIA Sophia Antipolis, I joined a research project as administrative aid.

My years of volunteering and charity work were far behind me. The researchers I met were committed and inspiring people. Most wore shoes but many didn’t. Most people appeared to not see the people around them, absorbed as they were. All had pens in the breast pocket of their shirt, or the pocket of their shorts. Most carried laptops. There were whiteboards everywhere and I had no idea what the colourful scribblings and equations meant.

In that INRIA research project, I learned to type on a qwerty keyboard, to use e-mail on exmh, to print from a unix terminal, to get geek humour. I also learned LateX. Just for fun. When the end of my mission was near I wrote a fictitious humorous report, in LateX, featuring some of the people that crowded our floor. A thirty or so page report that I gave to the two project managers and a researcher I was particularly fond of. In exchange (not really), I was congratulated by the Director of the institute, and the project managers each gave me the bestest recommendation letters ever. I was on the dole for five months afterwards. My great letters, for all the power that I thought they wielded, didn’t get me my next job.

Joining W3C

Lucky again, someone who knew me was asked to tell me that the World Wide Web Consortium needed an administrative aid and that I should apply. W3C was hosted at INRIA Sophia Antipolis and oddly enough people there seemed to remember me and speak highly of me! I interviewed and was hired. That was 14 years ago.

What we do at W3C is basically convening the people who make the Web and the people who consume the Web, around a neutral table. The staff (there are between 60 and 70 of us, mostly technical, located throughout the world) is involved to help the Web stakeholders converge. From that collaboration, web standards are born, refined, and perfected.

At W3C, I met the most incredible colleagues and co-workers, the most inspiring people, the most dedicated folks, bright, clever, helpful, friendly, reliable and supportive. Working with them, doing our job, doing *this* job, is fulfilling and gratifying.

It’s been a while so I have learned so much that it is difficult to synthesise. The one easy thing that comes to mind is NOT that I learned HTML or CSS (however, some of that I did learn), it is that I learnt to pack lightly, pragmatically and efficiently for trips abroad. We used to travel a lot. We still travel but not as much. I visited a big city for the first time during a W3C trip to a WWW conference. It was in Toronto. Then Boston, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Hawaii, Western Europe, Montreal, etc. I now pack in twenty minutes and travel with my purse, one carry-on and a laptop bag. For short trips, the carry-on is a small backpack.

I can say that I have learned various jobs within our organisation. I started as administrative aid, and as such I organised meetings, ordered stationary, managed hirings and interns, I wrote internal policies, then managed the local office. I joined the Communications team and wore several hats. From secretary of the Advisory Board, translation community monitor, blog master, to Community Manager. I gather the press clippings, I send transition announcements to our Members when a technology progresses from one state to another, ultimately reaching that of Standard. I write to our Web site, which I occasionally break so I sweat a bit and eventually fix it. I do other internal comm things too.

A couple years ago I had a skills assessment. I was at a point in time I wanted to focus on what I was good at, and what it was that I was skilled for. The exercise was interesting and useful. I was told my area of interest revolves around humanitarian activities and care giving. And that I have more than one string to my bow. No surprise, really, but it was reinforcement that I was in my field.

My job is a passion. It may not be the humanitarian field action I dreamt of as a young woman, but many in our trade liken our job to humanitarian work. And indeed, we are a “neutral intermediary” at the heart of making free and open Web standards.