I went up to Cambridge in 1992. The introductory Freshers’ Week was very organised (by the 2nd and 3rd years) in terms of events but there was nobody who just told me what I would be doing. So I wasn’t told where or when my lectures were, or how to find out, and I couldn’t ask because that would mean speaking to somebody I didn’t know. Luckily I got to know some others on my course through one of the Freshers’ Week events and got hold of a timetable through one of them. However I was still feeling somewhat lost because I had no routine established.
I was surprised to find that the timetable left so much free time during the day: that was a big change from school where each day was filled. I could not get used to having so much time on my hands and so little structure to my days and this caused me to begin to lose interest. Now one of my traits is that I have to be interested in anything I am doing to be able to motivate myself. I started to miss lectures and supervisions (called tutorials outside of Cambridge) and just scraped through the first year exams.
The end of the first year also involved organising a place to live for the coming year (the college didn’t have enough accommodation for all the undergraduates for the whole duration of their courses). I had no idea where to start with this one and found it very stressful. It was just luck that I was asked to join 3 others in sharing a house.
The second year continued the downward trend of the first. I began to feel very depressed and at one stage was self-harming. I was drinking every day and generally taking very poor care of myself. My clothes were usually unwashed and I hadn’t shaved or had a haircut for over a year. I rarely ate in college, instead living off takeaways. It was no surprise to me when I failed the end of year exams. My parents couldn’t understand what had happened and I couldn’t explain any of it because that would involve talking about my feelings. I still find it very difficult to express how I feel: the words won’t come to mind.
One constant throughout all my education was the lack of any goal on my part. I have never viewed anything I have done as a means to an end; I have done it because it interested me at the time, or I felt that it was what I had to do to meet peoples’ expectations. I believe that university falls into the second category and that was why I ultimately failed. Looking back now I can understand that the university approach to learning just doesn’t work for me. I am capable of learning new things in a very short space of time: this is something I do regularly in my job, but I need to be interested. Time at university seemed to drag because of the amount of time spent doing things unrelated to the course and I got bored.
As if to demonstrate that intelligence is not the same as common sense (or maybe I was a glutton for punishment) I attempted to continue my degree at Nottingham University, entering the second year there in 1994. I did this because I felt that it was what I was expected to do and I hadn’t analysed the reasons for the failure at Cambridge. It was a disaster. All the problems I had faced before were present with the additional problem that I was in among a whole new set of people whom I did not know.
I was reluctant to return home to face my parents because I had failed again and felt that I had let them down. I stayed on in Nottingham for a couple of months after I had dropped out before I crawled home with my tail between my legs feeling utterly defeated.
I was at a loose end for some months. I signed on to the dole and tried to work out what direction to take. I volunteered for a local charity and did some computer work for them (mostly desktop publishing and databases). I took a correspondence course in programming and found the course work almost trivially easy. It was at that point that I had a flash of inspiration.
I had been programming as a hobby since I was aged 11. I started when my father bought our first computer, a BBC Model B+. While I had little interest in playing games on it there was something about programming that caught my attention and held it. I became proficient in BBC BASIC and progressed to the much more powerful Acorn Archimedes. It was on that machine that I first encountered C which I proceeded to teach myself in due course. All through my time at school and university I had continued to program: even through the times when I was depressed I could sit there programming and forget about the world for a while.
I realised that I could earn a living from my hobby. I had confidence in my abilities. All I needed was a foot on the ladder; that first step. That proved to be the hardest, most frustrating time of my life up to that point. I lost count of the number of interviews I attended only to be rejected because of my lack of experience or degree and poor interpersonal skills before I had a chance to show what I could do. I finally got an interview with a small firm based in Camberley, Surrey. At the interview they set me a written C programming test which I completed fairly quickly (they later told me that I had completed it faster than anybody else who had taken the same test) and accurately. I went home and waited, expecting to be turned down yet again. To my complete surprise I got a phone call the next day and was invited back for a second interview a week later. I got offered the job as an Analyst/Programmer and immediately accepted: I was off and running in my working life.