The year my life rebooted

Crikey. The last twenty years of my life have gone by a lot more quickly than the previous twenty (which included university, graduation, at least thirteen addresses, at least five jobs, and most of my professional writing career). My life very clearly divides into “since March 2004” and “before that”. For ’twas but twenty years ago today, 9th March 2004, that I got the best job I have ever had; the one where I have most felt I found my tribe; the one where life began again in a new and better direction. Documentation Officer / Technical Writer / Senior Technical Editor (if you don’t mind) for JANET.

I had worked non-stop in publishing since graduating, an adventure which ended with voluntary liquidation and staring personal bankruptcy in the face. So I decided I had had my fun in publishing and was looking for something more communications based – though frankly I was getting to the stage where I would have taken anything.

I had heard of UKERNA, and JANET, when I worked in IT publishing. I hadn’t really understood what they were about. I toddled along to the interview vaguely thinking it might be something nuclear, because UKERNA is almost like UKAEA and it was based on the Harwell site. It was housed in the magnificent retro post-war dinginess of the Atlas Centre, where one of the offices had a funny smell that defied analysis or tracking down, and the control console of an Atlas computer was still on display in Reception.

It was nothing to do with anything nuclear. It was the United Kingdom Education and Research Networking Association, and it ran JANET, the computer network for the education and research sector. JANET is still here; UKERNA had a few name changes and ultimately was subsumed into its funding body JISC. But all that lay ahead.

And it needed a Documentation Officer to write, edit and produce … well, everything that goes in front of the public gaze. Web material, leaflets, technical documentation, reports … I would be using my publishing skills, but communicating, and being paid decently and contributing to a USS pension, as UKERNA came out of the academic sector.

And so I did. A decent salary for the first time in four years, lovely colleagues, like minds and a definite sense of my life being rebooted. Ben2. A second chance, gratefully received. But there was more…

The actual authors of everything I was meant to publish were all technical people far cleverer than me. But because they were so busy being cleverer than me, they by definition didn’t have time to do the actual writing. And I hate chasing up non-deliverers; it’s about the least satisfying and most depressing aspect of any job I have ever done. It didn’t take long to work out that everyone was happier if I just talked to them, then wrote the thing up on their behalf. Thus I accidentally became both a ghostwriter and a technical writer without even realising it.

Meanwhile, I just plain approved of JANET. A publicly funded good idea, dating back to the sixties, when it first became policy that the education and research sector needed a network of their own. Much toing and froing and research followed. One insuperable obstacle was the Post Office’s monopoly on telecommunications, which the founders of JANET eventually just chose to ignore (before it was scrapped anyway). It formally went live in 1984, evolving out of the Science & Education Research Council’s SERCnet, running on X.25 and the Coloured Book protocols (stop sniggering at the back, there). This was long before anyone outside the networking fraternity had heard of the internet. The internet runs on IP; the Chief Technical Officer when I was there had come on board at the start of the 1990s to investigate this technically inferior, hugely inefficient yet strangely popular colonial import and set up the impenetrably named JIPS, the JANET IP Service.

IP was fated to win that battle, of course. In due course the X.25 service was shut down and JANET became pure IP. And once a network runs on IP then to all intents and purposes it becomes invisible, subsumed into the internet at large. (Meanwhile UKERNA had been the logical choice to take on the task of domain naming and Nominet, which now manages UK internet domain names, arose from this.) But JANET is still there, if you know where to look, as a network of its own. If your internet address or institutional website ends with then you could well be on JANET without even knowing it.

So, just by working for UKERNA, I felt clearly and distinctly on the right side of history. Which was nice. Oh, and a decent salary and financial stability also gave me confidence to pursue a particular romantic interest that led to marriage. Also nice.

I’ve previously described how this halcyon period of my life came to an end after seven years. It was an interesting time; publicly funded, yes, but with the first faint hints on the horizon that the gravy train was chugging to a stop, or at least slowing down. Management was in an interregnum period and the new CEO was the first to come from the commercial rather than the academic sector. Every decision they made in that direction was the right one but it did inevitably bring on the day when the company was taken over by Evil Marketing Droids.

But then, nothing is forever, which thankfully I had already learned in the previous twenty years. 2044, here I come.