Some hero magic on Ada Lovelace Day

It’s all about the “now” and the “next” in media and technology; but in the headlong, often mind-numbing rush for mindshare, followers, whuffie or whatever is this week’s shiny nu nu thing, what has gone before is equally important.

That’s why, to mark Ada Lovelace Day I wanted to write about someone who inspired and mentored me directly.

I’d already edited a web site for the Edinburgh Festival and covered technology and multimedia culture for the likes of The Scotsman newspaper and .net magazine before I touched down in Londoninium in July 1998.

I was starting as Web Editor for the international website of Ernst & Young but – I was informed on Day One – there was a month of handover between me and the freelancer who’d previously been editing the site part-time.

On the morning the freelancer was due to come in my nerves were ratcheted up another notch from their already high levels. There was me *way* out of my comfort zone working in corporatesville when in walks this stunning woman: pixieish hair, jeans and a biker jacket. And when she removed said jacket, ooh, the tattoo on her arm was just gorgeous. She smiled and extended a hand: “Hey! I’m Lizzie”. And that was Liz Bailey. I’ll never forget it.

It was less of a handover, more of a crash course in ramping-up my html skills, and getting the ultimate outsiders insider’s guide to my employer, interspersed with some scrumptious Chinatown and Soho lunches and lots of hilarity. The full-spectrum introduction :-) But more than that it was finding – in this most alien of environments – a kindred spirit, because Lizzie was my entry point into London’s embryonic web scene.

A freelancer who also wrote and did web editing, design and production for Wired UK, The Guardian, BBC Online, the FT, Demos, Wallpaper*, McKinsey, The Telegraph and more, Lizzie knew everyone who was doing anything interesting web-wise in London.

Missing my own familiarity with Scotland’s web scene, I was happy to take a cue from my new mentor. If it wasn’t for Lizzie, well I would’ve been fine, but she allowed me to bridge both worlds: the corporate but innovative focus of my everyday work, and the creativity, excitement and bone fide madness of the first dotcom boom.

I’d seen a black and white A4 newsletter once in Glasgow (when someone in London posted it to me) called New Media Age – it carried four pages of news on the nascent sector and no ads! But it was Lizzie who tipped me off re a packed mid-week party in Great Titchfield St dubbed ‘Boob Night’ where I met the editor of the then fully-fledged magazine, a young fella by the name of Mike Butcher who I managed to out-argue . He says he doesn’t remember it, but back then nights of mayhem where the champers flowed gratis were ten a penny for the current TechCrunchUK editor  ;-)

At Lizzie’s 30th Birthday party I also met Phil Gyford (then at BBC Online I think), and a guy she was working with on ‘New Media Creative’ magazine called Paul Murphy. Later she introduced me to hotshot new media reporter Polly Sprenger who was fresh over from Wired News in San Francisco (Mike Butcher once described Polly to me as “the Red Rum of technology reporters” after they worked together on the shortlived Industry Standard Europe magazine).

It reaffirmed I wasn’t just working in a “job”, for a “company”, but part of of something game-changing and amazing.

But this melange of web culture, innovation and merriment paled next to Lizzie’s own formidable focus and grit. A web grrrl to the core, Lizzie would magic up websites to die for whilst relentlessly promoting the causes of usability, innovation and the visibility of women in the web design and technology sector.

That movement for change – and celebration of talent – has latter day embodiments in UK-founded networks (some of which have gone global) like She Says, Girl Geek Dinners, Women In Mobile Data, and the briefly existent Digital Womens’ Club – all great initiatives I’ve actively supported.

Three years flew by, and when I was two jobs on from Ernst & Yong working as editor in chief of a VC-funded music website, the entire sector imploded. After a barren several months I decamped to the TV industry back in Belfast in 2002. But Lizzie hung in there. Multi-talented and entrepreneurial to a tee, she was surely the woman who knew most about new media in London. She was praxis.

And just when I came back to London in 2004, as the first timid signs of hope were visible in the sector (I’d been waiting, watching and biding my time you see), Lizzie switched careers and started studying to be a barrister.

Now she’s qualified and doing well, but her influence in web culture and technology still resonates for me. I’ve often been at conferences like SXSW Interactive, FOWA, Changing Media – and the NMK and Chinwag Live events I’ve organised myself – and thought “damn, Lizzie should be speaking at this!”. But looked at in a broader way, she has been…

I don’t know if I’d have dared come back to digital if I hadn’t known Lizzie. There were too many talented people flushed out of the sector back then. As it turns out while digital certainly has been affected by the current recession, compared to the rest of media – and jobs more generally – it’s still *relatively* resilient. In short, it’s nowhere near a dotcom bust Groundhog Day scenario.

Tons and tons of people inspire me of course, but in reality it’s hard to say what it all will mean and which parts will be valuable 10 years hence.

So raise a toast to the inaugural Ada Lovelace Day and sample some vintage Liz Bailey (NB. it’s an internet hazard that most of Lizzie’s work from then – like most of mine – has not been archived):

Boo gets booed – The Guardian 11th November 1999

Britgrrls No Bark and No Byte? – 1999, trAce

Demos publications by Liz Bailey

Who was Ada Lovelace?
Born on 10th December 1815, the only child of Lord Byron and his wife Annabella, Augusta Ada Byron (now known simply as Ada Lovelace) wrote the world’s first computer programmes for the Analytical Engine, a general-purpose machine that Charles Babbage had invented  »read more

Credits
Thanks to Suw Charman for co-ordinating Ada Lovelace Day on Tuesday 24th March 2009. The first of it’s kind, it’s “an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines. Entrepreneurs, innovators, sysadmins, programmers, designers, games developers, hardware experts, tech journalists, tech consultants. The list of tech-related careers is endless.” »Ada Lovelace website

Join In!
You (male or female) can still register your pledge to write a blog post celebrating your technology heroine on this day – Tuesday 24th March – at the official »2009 PledgeBank page

4 responses to “Some hero magic on Ada Lovelace Day

  1. And now Denise Lovelace is your new mentor. Life eh!

    Nice blog btw.

  2. Ah Adam, instead, think about it this way: you are the blogless black sheep surrounded by 3 women bloggers on the web team. Now *that’s* progress ;-)

  3. Fantastic piece D. Its given me goosebumps and the inspiration to go forth into the day and make a difference. Thanks!

  4. Hey Eaon, thanks so much, great to get such a comment, speaking your mind uncut, that’s appreciated!

    Many people have blogged about women who are famous (or should I say “internet famous”) right now and it’s brilliant that there are so many to choose from, but I think there are a lot of behind-the-scenes-type people who maybe aren’t bothered about recognition, they just get on with it, and often in the greater scheme of things their impact is deeper.

    Glad to have supplied wee bit of inspiration to your day, hope it went well :-)

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