Deb Bassett – Leeds Tech Scene

Deb Bassett is a freelance Rails developer based in Otley in West Yorkshire. She is a mainstay of the Leeds tech scene and the organiser of the Leeds GeekUp. I interviewed her the day after the inaugural Geek-Up in Leeds, and a couple of weeks before her marriage to Rob Lee, who is also an Otley-based developer.

CS: What’s your background?

DB: I’m originally from Stone in Staffordshire. I did a University degree at Manchester in Computer Science – I had applied to study Physics but I changed my mind at the last minute after realising my forte was computers! After finishing my degree, I moved to Leeds for my first job, as a software engineer for PA New Media, which became Ananova (remember – “the world’s first virtual newscaster”?) and was Deb Bassett - in Canada eventually bought by Orange. I was with them for three years, mainly developing in Perl, with some Java and PHP in between. I then went to work for Energis, which is now Cable & Wireless, as a full-time Perl and Java developer. After 4 years there, I left and went travelling for 10 months with Rob, and we have both freelanced thereafter.

Things moved on while I was travelling, and I picked up Ruby/ Ruby on Rails when I got back – this time I had the choice of where to take my career and Rails seemed to have everything I wanted in a framework.

The Rails community has grown substantially since I first started, and are such an enthusiastic bunch of people. The amount of Rails applications in production has increased substantially too since I started and is steadily creeping into the mainstream.

CS: How do you find working from home, when there’s two of you doing it, and your personal
life is there as well?

DB: It’s really good, I enjoy it! Sometimes it can be difficult to separate home and working life when there’s no clear boundaries for when you should start and stop working. You sometimes find yourself working the whole day and into the evening until quite late, and sometimes your cycles move round so, for example, you might work from 12 noon until 4 in the morning: it doesn’t really matter when you’re working from home what times you work. But there’s two of us, and it’s actually very nice to have the support – I don’t think I’d like it if I was on my own.

Otley’s a great place to work from – it’s a small town in the countryside just north of Leeds and we’re lucky enough to have some good friends there. There’s quite a tech community which mainly stems from my ex-employers Energis (Cable & Wireless) and Orange – most of us have worked at one or the other at some point and we are techie to varying degrees.

I occasionally head over to York to see Edd who I work with on his exciting start-up, Expectnation.

CS: How long has GeekUp being going on in Manchester?

Geek Up
DB: I believe it started about a year and a half, maybe two years ago. It is the brain child of Andrew Disley, a web developer from Orrell, near Wigan. I first found out about it at Reboot in May last year where I met Andrew, and it had already been going a good while then.

CS: And at what point did you think you could do one of those in Leeds?

It’s an hour and a half from Otley to Manchester and we’ve done the journey quite a few times now. It seemed a natural progression for Leeds to have a GeekUp, a bit closer to home – we had talked about it a few months before with Andrew and others but we were a bit tied up because Rob and I were getting married (they got married in July – ed) so we said we’d leave it until after then. We had
underestimated how vibrant the Leeds tech scene was, and by May lots of people were asking about Leeds GeekUp, so Andrew asked us if we could start it a bit earlier, so we kicked things off in June.

CS: Andrew seems to be an Agent Provocateur …

DB: I like to call him the father of GeekUp, although I’m not sure he’d like me saying that! He’s a nice guy I don’t think it would have the GeekUp edge without him.

CS: While I think it’s great there are User Groups for Linux, Perl etc, I think it’s important that GeekUp is not just about one technology. If someone is setting up a Start-Up, they need to be able to program, to need to be able to sell themselves, so there’s marketing skills involved, they need to be able to set up a website so there’s web design, there’s the money side of things …

DB: GeekUp is great because you get to meet a mix of people from the industry who you wouldn’t necessarily normally meet. For example, I get to meet programmers fairly often, but, say, designers – I’m not really a designer so getting the opportunity to meet others from that community is invaluable. Also, if you are a freelancer, working from home, GeekUp provides that important connection to the community that you might otherwise get from a work environment. I end up picking up lots of sound-bites of information, and reading about them in depth later… it’s an efficient, effective way of catching up with the community.

CS: So last night was just conversation?

DB: Pure conversation.

We’re hoping to have talks next time, we haven’t quite decided on the format, maybe 20:20 Lightning Talks. The Manchester GeekUp last month did 5 quick sessions, and people could talk about anything techie. It’s nice to have that mixture of socialising and formal talks.

CS: I think it’s important to leave spaces at these events so people can have a gab.

DB: Yes, It’s a well known fact that the best conversations happen in the hallways at conferences, we think that GeekUp can learn from this.

CS: It’s a way of people getting excited about what’s going on. There’s a real buzz these
days.

DB: There’s a complete buzz at the moment – it’s fascinating. Although it worries me a bit, I’m hoping it doesn’t match in behaviour to the original dot-com boom.

CS: So how many people turned up last night?

DB: More than 40! Initially we were expecting around 10 people as we didn’t realise the Leeds tech community was so big so we were really pleased!

CS: And beside the Rails guys you were with, who else came along last night?

DB: There were lots of web developers and designers plus a few from PR and marketing and some bloggers and entrepreneurs.

CS: How many people knew each other?

DB: I knew quite a few people, as I’d got in touch with them and invited them along, but there were lots who I didn’t know – groups of people from certain companies that came together and then there were individuals who just turned up and mingled, so it was a complete mix. It was great to see lots of people from the Round Foundry Media Centre too – I’d never met any of them before.

CS: Did everyone volunteer to come again?

DB: We had lots of positive feedback, there was even talk of a barbecue next time.

Deb Bassett - Rob Lee - Amsterdam BarcampCS: There seemed to be lots of people writing on Upcoming how they were pleased this was happening in Leeds. Has there been anything happening in Leeds like this up until now?

DB: WYLUG has been around for some time now and there’s been quite a few flickr and blogger meetups. More recently OpenCoffee has started in Leeds – the first one was last week. It’s during the day so hard for me to get to, but they had a really positive turnout with 30+ people turning up in Starbucks (I think next month they are changing the venue). There’s going to be a BarCamp Leeds very soon, they haven’t set a date yet, but it could be late September or October, it’s a really positive step for Leeds. Just last month there was a Barcamp Sheffield. It’s really great to see so much happening up north.

There’s also going to be an Open Street Map mapping party in Leeds on 15th & 16th September. The organiser, a guy called Tim Waters was at GeekUp last night. Leeds isn’t very well mapped, although it’s getting better: I went to the Sheffield Mapping Party and I’m really pleased we’re having one in Leeds as it’d be great to see more of Leeds on the map.

CS: They were a courier company at first, weren’t they, using GPS to keep track of where their couriers were?

DB: They used a courier company to get lots of the initial GPS traces. It’s really fascinating: have you seen the animations of the OSM coverage growing in London and the UK? It really excites me, over the last year I’ve been following it, I’ve watched the maps grow rapidly in coverage, the mapping completed by regular, open source-minded people.

CS: How far a-field did people come from last night?

DB: Some people came from over 30 miles away including some of the Manchester GeekUp lot. Andrew didn’t make it – he really wanted to but he’ll be there next time. I’d love to see Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester have a combined GeekUp gathering one time, it would be great to get everyone together.

CS: So when’s the next GeekUp Leeds?

DB: GeekUp Leeds is every third Wednesday of the month. Manchester is the second Tuesday of the month and Liverpool in on the last Thursday!

CS: That’s quite an algorithm to work out!

DB: There’s method there somewhere. One thing I noticed was that there seemed to be less Mac users than I expected. Every time I go to a conference there’s whole mass of Mac users. There seemed to be a mix of Windows, Linux and Mac users.

CS: Are you a Mac User?

DB: Linux. Ubuntu.

CS: And is it going to be a geeky marriage, if you don’t mind me asking?

DB: Quite! We are using moo cards for the place names, Rob’s generated everyone’s name using images of the letters from flickr using the same principle as flickr spelling. I wrote a guest management system for the wedding in Rails, too. We also are planning on having a wii room at the evening do.

CS: Weddings are well served by the internet.

DB: There’s certainly lots of wedding-related content out there, it’s a vast market! People used to put disposable cameras on the tables, but now there’s no need, you can tell everyone to upload their photos to Flickr and tag them with a specified tag. That way, everyone gets to see everyone else’s photos. Our gift list is online, too – we are using kaboodle (didn’t get chance to write our own!) – so that we could list gifts from different places and not be tied to a specific store.

CS: Do you mind if I ask about women geeks? Someone was saying that Hack Day was predominantly male, and I wondered if you see things changing and what would make things change.

DB: I don’t see things changing that much, which is a shame as it’s a really interesting and creative industry to work in. I do find it a difficult question to answer as it seemed a natural progression for me to head into computing and I have found the computing industry really welcoming as a whole.

Of course, you are aware that you are a minority, and there are both advantages and disadvantages to this. Jeni Tennison has written a fabulous article which is the first article I’ve read that really hits the nail on the head for me: Getting Women into Computing. Edd wrote a follow-up to Jeni’s article – of particular interest to me is the point made about self-efficacy – as Edd says, a complete revelation, and something I’ve never quite been able to put into words.

CS: Are there any other interesting events in the North that you go to, and further a-field?

DB: Rob and I head down to Manchester as often as possible for North West Ruby User Group, run by Dave Verwer. There’s also a group in York called We Are The Monkeys – they’ve been going for some time now and meet on a monthly-ish basis. In July, Manchester will host “The State of the Map” – the first Open Street Map international conference (http://upcoming.yahoo.com/event/153405/). Unfortunately it’s on the same day as our wedding otherwise I’d be there! Also in Manchester is rumour of a Barcamp – I’m looking forward to hearing more about that.

Further a-field, we headed down to Interesting 2007 in London where we manned a stall for folksy, the start-up that Rob has been working on with a guy called James Boardwell. Folksy is an online market place to enable crafters to sell their stuff but with a social, Instructables slant. I helped them with their stall where we showed off our hardware hacking and crafting skills, which went down really well. It was cool to see people making stuff in person at an event, it doesn’t normally happen. There seems to be a movement towards making and crafting at the moment, it’s great to see people getting out their soldering irons and sewing machines and innovating again.

In May, we were lucky enough to head over to Paris for XTech, chaired by Edd Dumbill, the theme this year being “The Ubiquitous Web”.

In May, we also travelled to Copenhagen for Reboot, ‘a community event for the practical visionaries who are at the intersection of digital technology and change all around us’, and last September we were at RailsConf Europe, in London.

CS: What are the major employment opportunities in Leeds for a techie? What kind of work is it? How do you find freelancing? Is it a good place to be a start-up?

DB: There are fairly good employment opportunities in Leeds covering a wide range of skills. Larger companies such as Cable and Wireless, Orange, William Hill, HSBC and the Halifax have a large IT presence here and there are also many web design and development agencies too.

In terms of freelance/contract opportunities, I’ve not seen many advertised Rails positions, however the more mainstream skills are well represented. I’ve normally found that freelance work comes via word-of-mouth and it matters less where it is based as you generally work from home.

In terms of being a good place to be a start-up – I don’t think Leeds is any different to any other major UK city – nowadays I think it matters less where you are based, as long as you are close to major transport links, and have good connectivity!

CS: Are there major tech events in Leeds or and how do they impact on the daily techosphere?

I’m sorry to say I can’t think of any major tech events in Leeds other than the impending BarCamp. Maybe that’s something that GeekUp can help resolve!

CS: Who are the major bloggers and characters?

DB: The major characters and bloggers that I know of in the Leeds area are: Tim Waters, geo-specialist and developer, Edd Dumbill, writer, programmer, entrepreneur and free software advocate, Imran Ali, emerging technologies specialist and organiser of Leeds Open Coffee and not forgetting Rob Lee, fiancé, developer and entrepreneur!

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