“Get out there and look at that f****n car. Look at that f****n car!”
And all of the good little office girls jumped up and ran outside to ogle and coo over the chairman’s latest “prestige motor.”
Me being me – someone who couldn’t care less about cars, or massaging the needy egos of the men who feel a need to show them off – I stayed sat at my desk and carried on with my work.
My absence outside would be noted, and would not do me any favours.
I had taken a job at a local business support organisation because I needed the work. I’d been told that my experience and abilities could benefit the organisation and, by extension, the local business community. The joke was on me.
In truth, the organisation was a back-slapping boys’ club which didn’t even have a business plan. Its main income source was, and remains to this day, the revenue from a vanity awards dinner, where members nominate themselves for meaningless awards and then pay thousands of pounds to find out if they won. Beyond that, its sole purpose was to provide the board and management with “prestige and status” (my manager’s words, not mine.) The office atmosphere was so toxic that the HR manager, faking every excuse in the book, hadn’t bothered to show up in months, which meant that I never saw a job description, had a performance review, or was signed up for the company pension; in fact, the only way I got a contract was by going in on a Saturday to type it up myself. It was all pretty ironic for an organisation which officially exists to support other businesses.
But bills need to be paid, so I kept my head down and did my work and breathed deeply through the increasingly dysfunctional dramas of the board and management.
Believing that you can keep calm and avoid office politics in a dysfunctional workplace is a unique form of denial.
By showing up for work in the morning, observing the backstabbing behavior around you, and keeping your nose above the parapet, you make yourself easy pickings.
It did not help that my job required me to read certain documents, pass on certain email exchanges, see certain expense receipts, and take minutes at certain meetings. I knew everything. I knew what everyone was up to. I knew too much.
The things I knew too much about erupted violently in the space of a fortnight. Sackings, retaliatory sackings, accusations, slanders, backstabs, screaming, lies, people literally being escorted out the back door, people breaking into file cabinets and document storage, the whole ugly lot.
I decided life was too short to put up with that nonsense and scurried off the sinking ship. Unemployment was preferable to working in a dysfunctional war zone.
A few days later I was sitting in my living room in my pajamas (as unemployed people do), staring blankly at the Christmas tree, barely aware if it was day or night, my head still spinning about what had just happened and what I was going to do next. Then there was a knock at the door. The postman, I assumed.
No, it was the police. They wanted to come in. So they did.
Allegations had been made. Statements had been taken. Criminal charges would be filed.
Merry Christmas to you too, I replied as I saw them out.
Because that’s how office politics work, folks. You don’t walk away from egomaniacs on your own terms. That implies there is something wrong with them. They have to take you down on their own terms. That implies there is something wrong with you. You may think you have left the backstabbers to get on with their petty games without you taking the meeting minutes and processing the strip club expense receipts. You’re wrong. They have got to find a way to take you down and make you keep your mouth shut. And they will.
I moved on with my life. I found a stable temp job which had the option to go permanent, and I was quite content with it. I even almost forgot about the police visit. The Scottish justice system, you see, is notoriously slow. So when a letter arrived four months later informing me that I would be standing in a criminal trial at the local sheriff court, I threw up.
I was throwing up all the time at that point because I had just found out I was pregnant.
Most women spend pregnancy in a dreamy haze surrounded by friends, family, and affection. I spent it taking unpaid breaks from my temp jobs to meet with a legal aid solicitor (being unemployed and on a temp wage, I couldn’t afford to pay a lawyer) to plan my defence. He was nice enough, but was clearly not sure what to make of the whole situation. He was used to dealing with actual crimes – stabbings, domestic assaults, and the like. And there was a five foot two pregnant lady in front of him explaining all the plot twists and characters in this pathetic real-life soap opera. He probably looked forward to getting back to the stabbings.
In the meantime, for health and safety reasons, I had to inform my temp employer about the pregnancy. The permanent job offer evaporated instantly.
I spent the rest of my time taking whatever demeaning temp admin jobs a heavily pregnant woman could get in order to work the minimum number of days required to qualify for the basic state maternity allowance, which at the time was £106 a week for six months.
Suffice to say my dignity took a bit of a beating that year.
By the time the date of preliminary hearing rolled around – again, the Scottish justice system being as slow as it is – I was on the edge of my third trimester. And so there I was, standing alone in the dock in a criminal courtroom, in sheriff court, next to drug dealers and knife thugs, wearing a hideous Marks and Spencer maternity dress, to plead not guilty to something that had never happened.
All of that because of office politics.
Now, the thing about legal aid is that you get what you pay for. My solicitor didn’t show up. He faxed an instruction to one of the solicitors at the sheriff court who acts on behalf of others in those matters. In hindsight, this was a strategy to suggest to the court that the case was so stupid it was not worth showing up for. On the day, though, I was completely, totally, alone, left to stand up and speak for myself.
The only person I had in the world to support me was kicking furiously in my stomach, as if to say: go, mum, go.
At that moment I had an insight. This, I realised, is it. This is the low point of my life. This is absolute rock bottom. It does not get any worse than this. From here, you can’t go any lower. It is only up from here. And that, standing there in that dock, was strangely liberating.
Now here’s the thing about elderly male judges in curly 18th century wigs. They’re not stupid. He took one look at the charge sheet, one look at the folder of statements and evidence against me, and one look at me. He asked the befuddled prosecuting solicitor what on earth was going on here; the solicitor replied that they were looking to gather more evidence against me. “And how much longer are we to wait for that? This was ten months ago,” he replied to her, very, very cross. This is all very interesting, I thought.
Two days later my solicitor phoned: the judge had ruled the case was “not in the public interest.” That is Scottish legal parlance for “an absolute load of crap.” All charges were dropped; I would have no criminal record; I was done. I was finished. I was free.
Well, free, unemployed, heavily pregnant, destitute, my reputation had been destroyed, and now I had a large hole in my CV which would be awfully difficult to explain. Other than that, I was fine.
Moving On Again
I went on state maternity pay early and took some time to get my head back together. That gave me the breathing space to realise a few things.
One was that I was done with office life. That meant I would have to find something to do on my own.
Two was that I was pretty good with this web stuff – I’d been making web sites since 1997, had been running a very popular web site since 1998, and had always been the go-to girl for the web site in everywhere I’d ever worked – and so I might as well do that for a living.
And three was that I had learned the law is bloody terrifying if you let other people blindside you with it. If you know what you are looking at, where you stand within it, and how others are seeking to use it to further their position, you are no longer a hapless bystander to it. You are an equal participant with a fair chance. That is your choice to make.
Setting Up Shop
So I set up shop as a self-employed web designer, working quite happily from home with my biggest fan babbling next to me in the playpen. The money wasn’t great, but my stress levels were non-existent, and I had no co-workers to stab me in the back.
Lack of co-workers should never mean lack of colleagues, though, and after a few years I realised local business networking groups simply weren’t for me. I also needed people other than the members of an ancient listserv to bounce questions and ideas off of in real-time. By this point I’d started playing around with WordPress, and I learned about a local meetup group. I tiptoed in one night and awkwardly introduced myself and was welcomed right in.
I realised over time that this was a very different sort of group. Everyone was grassroots volunteers, putting in the effort because they wanted to learn, not because they wanted social status. There was no tiresome hierarchy, no obsession with “prestige”, no kowtowing to the person with the sexiest car (in fact, we all took the bus.) If you had a question, you could ask it without being laughed out the room. No one was obliged to give anything more than they were able to give.
In short, it was my kind of group, and these were my kind of people.
After a few years we got ambitious enough to decide to put on a conference (which due to various reasons was a WordPress conference but not a WordCamp – ah, the good old days.) We were short of speakers. I suggested to Martin, the lead organiser, that someone should do a talk on that “cookie law” thing that at the time was coming into play very shortly.
“Thank you for volunteering,” said Martin.
“You’re a b*****d, you know that, Martin?” I replied.
So Martin sent me off to do my homework and put together this conference talk. I thought it would just be a simple slide deck: what the law is, how it works, how to comply. Much to my surprise, putting that talk together changed my life.
The Old Becomes New
As I sat at my laptop, doing the research, I felt something strange stirring. It was old me.
Old me, who had done an undergraduate degree in international politics. Old me, who’d been a policy intern at think tanks and research centers. Old me, who’d sat in Congressional committees and worked on the Hill and ate politics for breakfast. Old me who’d trained very hard to do one thing and had gotten sidetracked by real life and was now doing something else because something bad had happened. Old me was now new me reading the full text of a piece of EU legislation about how the internet is supposed to work while shouting at my laptop screen, “there is no bloody way that is ever going to work,” while my biggest fan looked at me baffled and then asked me for a cup of juice.
Whoever I was now, and whatever crap had happened to me in those intervening years, I was back.
That conference talk turned into an obsession. I began writing about law and policy issues that impact our work – be it regulations on accessibility, e-commerce, privacy and data protection, taxation, UX, contracts, copyright, geoblocking, or any of the smaller issues that touch our work every day. I even became a student again and earned a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. I still did the client-facing web work but my enthusiasm for it waned by the month.
At WordCamp London 2015 I gave a talk on various digital policy issues, then spent the rest of the time sitting in the track devoted to charity and not-for-profit web sites, as that was what my business did. As the speakers gave their superb talks I felt myself sinking lower in my chair. Another insight. Oh, woman, you’re in the wrong job. This isn’t what you are supposed to be doing. For the first time I asked myself why I was devoting such passion to the digital policy side while still carrying on with a web design business I started up to give myself a job with a newborn baby. A few months later I was flown out to Seville on a few days’ notice to speak at WordCamp Europe, where I replaced a speaker who had been hospitalised. I felt a tremendous sense of obligation because of that – it was deeply humbling to be given an opportunity because of someone else’s illness – and I resolved to do more to give back to the WordPress community.
I hung up my web design mouse in the autumn of that year. I still do odd bits and bobs for a handful of existing clients but I now focus entirely on digital law and policy. My blog is read by the UK Parliament, the European Commission, and the US Department of State. I speak to non-WordPress groups ranging from Joomla developers to Ruby programmers, but WordPress remains my home and my community. I encourage members of the community to respect the law and to work within it, not to fear it. I think, all things considered, I’m more than qualified to understand why that’s true.
Thanks to the WordPress community I’ve made friends for life, travelled to new places, and had adventures I never thought possible. I’ve built a new career while connecting with the important things I thought I had left behind. And last year when I was pickpocketed en route to a conference talk, the WordPress community in that city – none of whom I had ever met – leapt into action to provide me with food, beer, and hugs. In a strange city where I didn’t speak the language and had no money, being part of the community meant I didn’t have to be scared and alone.
I’ve come a long way from that lonely courtroom dock.