So long and thanks for all the fish

Andrew Bolster

Senior R&D Manager (Data Science) at Synopsys Software Integrity Group and Treasurer @ Bsides Belfast and NI OpenGovernment Network

I’m leaving Northern Ireland, and I’m moving to Liverpool. Via Portsmouth.

I have spoken with a few people about the situation I find myself in, and a few more people about my decision, but I want to get it all down somewhere.

Where did this come from?

The short answer is that a series of unexpected events mean that it makes sense to move my research.

Recently, my PhD supervisor, Prof Alan Marshall, was offered a research Chairship at the University of Liverpool, which he gladly accepted. It’s a great move for him (Another Russell Group, one of the original ‘redbrick’ universities, etc etc), but that’s his life not mine so all it does is provide an option. (Disclosure: I also work with Alan on his spinout Wireless Security company, TOM Ltd)

Most PhD funding in Northern Ireland (at least in the technology/engineering/science sector) is funded through the Department of Employment and Learning block grant scheme, which in effect hands a large block of cash to the University which the University then spends on research across the university’s departments, meaning that it’s the universities money, and if you want to move, well, sucks to be you. Mine isn’t like that1.

It’s funded through a collaboration between the UK’s DSTL and the DGA in France, and is centred on Myself and Prof. Marshall. This means that while my small block of funding goes to the university, when I / Alan move, it can move with us with (hopefully) relative ease.

Ok, that’s Liverpool explained, What about Portsmouth?

That one is easy.

Portsdown West is one of DSTL’s major research facilities, and as part of my funding, I am ‘strongly encouraged’ to make cross sector engagements. In an ideal world, I spend 1 summer in the UK and 1 summer in France to even the deal, but that’s a problem for next-year-me.

I’ll be taking on a 8 week secondment to PDW, working with Dr Alec Banks on identifying where trust is required in a new NATO maritime UXV architecture and the methods that can be used to implement it.

TL;DR giving autonomous vehicles (planes, submarines, cars) a concept of reputation, which is pretty much the cornerstone of my current research.

What about Rachel?

Before anyone jumps to conclusions; mine and Rachel’s relationship is as strong as ever. We’ll both be on M-F 9-5 schedules so regular weekend trips will be made.

What’s going to happen to Farset Labs?

Farset has been a big factor in this decision. I’ve put a lot of my time and energy into it over the past few years, and wouldn’t abandon it unless I thought it was the right thing to do.

David and Ellen will continue their sterling control of Farset both as a fiscally stable charity, and as a community of some of the greatest minds and personalities that I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.

We’re currently in the process of electing two additional directors to increase representation and hopefully stabilise the amount of work the three of us have been putting in over the past year and a half. David will hopefully be taking over most of the ‘front of house’ work I’ve been doing, with Ellen’s focus remaining on the logistics of the company and maintaining the membership, but really, the makeup of the new directorship is primarily up to the two newcomers (with a strong amount of structural inertia from us to keep things stable!)

I’ve also asked Claire Wilgar to take on the responsibility of managing CoderDojo and Farset’s other STEM outreach activities.

For the time being, I’ll be staying on as a ‘virtual director’ for a few months after the elections to smooth the transition and to provide practical continuity. After which I’ll officially resign and a fresh by-election will be held for my position, probably around October-time. Never know, I might be able to swing back for a chat in September!

Why Leave?

This is the difficult bit. Having the option is one thing, taking it is another.

The answer is really two fold; it’s an opportunity, and it’s an escape;

They say to never look a gift horse in the mouth, and when that gift horse is the chance to contribute to a brand new research cluster, potentially steering the course of the university’s investment in digital communications technology for the coming decades, with the opportunity to collaborate with some of the best expertise in autonomous systems in the UK, with access to one of the best VR/Simulation centres in Europe, and also removes need for flying back and forth for collaboration with the UK and Europe, it’s hard to turn it down.

Of course, it’s not exclusively ‘positive things pulling me away’, there are also negative things about Belfast/Northern Ireland that have been pushing me away; this place has slowly been draining me.

Disclaimer: The following rant does not represent the opinion, attitude, or position of anyone other than myself, and is not a statement on behalf of QUB, ECIT, Farset Labs, or any other entity.

The Northern Ireland Culture, be it in a Professional, Academic, Personal, or Political sense, has stood in the way of what I have been trying to do at QUB, Farset Labs, and beyond at almost every step. The simultaneous assumption of the general populace that everything is publically funded so it must be free/cheap, combined with what I can only describe as a cross between chronic bureaucracy and Helen Keller-levels of short-sightedness from the political, business, and academic communities respectively has made this past few years some of the most soul destroying of my life.

When it is easier to get funding to “convene a consultative panel to meet to discuss ways to develop a long-term reconciliation programme for technical redevelopment of the region“ than to pay for a few dozen raspberry pi’s, or to pay the travel costs to send researchers to schools, or to keep a bus route going between a university satellite centre on a supposed ‘innovation campus’, this province, and indeed the organisations ‘responsible’ for it’s development, have a lot to answer for.

With what currently stands as eleven thousand pounds of community funding (the vast majority of which was spent on just keeping the lights on, including the expense of a spurious two thousand pound lawsuit…) Farset Labs has done more to develop the next generation of technical and entrepreneurial leaders per pound spent than any other organisation by several orders of magnitude. Of that I am exceedingly proud.

That’s not to say that bureaucracy is the exclusive quality of Northern Ireland; lots of places across the world are forced to deal with this, and some make a concerted effort to curtail it, or work ‘around’ it, or just ignore it (The French seem a perfect example of the latter). But Northern Ireland just doesn’t seem to care. About anything. Unless it’s a fleg. Or a “peace dividend”2

Northern Ireland needs to get off the teat that is the block grant and start practicing the ‘innovation’ that is talked about so often at press conferences and photo ops, but is conspicuously absent in the offices and boardrooms.

This is particularly apparent in public institutions, where it seems that if you’re any good at a job, you either get promoted out of usefulness or “moved on” because you’re “making everyone else look bad”. This is particularly galling when you remember that the public sector is almost a third of direct employment in the province, and is linked to nearly 70% of GDP.

And don’t even get me started on the fiasco that is the NI political ‘system’. A greater display of the dysfunctional, self-destructive, protectionist, tribal, self-suffocating tendencies of this nation cannot be found.

It wasn’t all bad

Before I conclude this rant, I have to highlight some of the diamonds in the rough; there are people trying to make a difference, and I really hope they continue to succeed in pushing the agenda just a little bit further in their respective fields.

Matt Johnson, that inimitable agent provocateur who has been single handedly pushing a workable STEAM agenda for both education and business development through that horrible interface between ‘policy’ and ‘reality’. Whether it’s hunting for mentors for CoderDojo or casting the right political incantations over proposal documentation, Matt is doing his level best (which is pretty damned good) to change this place. Although he can still be an ass at times; patience is rewarded.

Steve Orr (and the rest of the NISP Connect team, but mostly Steve) has spearheaded the movement of the ‘Knowledge Economy’ in Northern Ireland, and while I still hate the name, I firmly believe that the KE-agenda is the only way to save the economy, not only here, but with our neighbours in the south and across the waters. Steve has been one of the greatest supporters of Farset since long before we opened our doors, and was pivotal in establishing our technical and professional credo within the ‘higher echelons’ of the NI Tech and Business scene. He also manages to walk the fine line between excitement and flippancy that mean he’s a great person to talk to as he will tell you to wise the fuck up if need be.

The simple fact of Oonagh Murphy’s continued existence and residence in NI makes me exceedingly happy. She is fighting (hard) to bring together the normally insular worlds of Culture and Technology, as well as taking the ‘Northern Ireland Message’ with her on her many travels (even if she can’t remember the actual exhibits for her reports! Too busy nattering!)

No discussion about exceptional personalities would be complete without mentioning that lanky import, Ben Bland. Ben started off as a business acquaintance, a network contact, an advisor, and eventually, a very dear friend. His… eccentric style always brings an element of creative chaos to any situation, and his ability to pluck ideas from a magical combination of ‘thin air’ and ‘bullshit’ around him into workable projects never ceases to amaze me. His awareness of people and culture is a fantastic asset in any situation, and his boundless energy and creativity make him a brilliant drinking partner.

I’m not even going to try to explain the genii that are David and Ellen (previously Eoghan). The wobbly-3-legged stool that was the Farset Labs director team was made strong by our mutual respect and our mutual disrespect; one of the slowing factors on releasing historical Farset Labs director meetings is to remove the expletives and cross-director bitching that happened, but as soon as we stepped outside, we dealt with problems together. That camaraderie can’t be created by ‘Teamwork retreats’, and to say that I value these relationships is to decidedly undersell their impact on me.

The End

Being lucky enough to be surrounded by such impactful people has led me to a strangely simple but subtle conclusion.

I fear that I’ve done all I can, as I currently am, for this place. We have the opportunity to turn this place around from an economic dumping ground into a world leader in technology, business, science, and development. But it takes an effort to be “different” at all levels, instead of just being happy with the status quo. Even if a few (or many) projects attempts fail.

Especially if projects fail; The act of trying something different and ‘failing’ will create an environment of experimentation, and development, that will put us all in a position for shake things up. But I really don’t have the energy for that any more.

Maybe I’ll get more momentum if I come back. That, quasi-sexy, “Ohhhh, you’ve been somewhere else! What can I do for you?! Would you like a biscuit?”3 can’t be underestimated.

I intend to change the world. I intend to change this province. But first, I have to change myself.

See you on the other side.

  1. Actually it’s even weirder; Under the DEL grant scheme, researchers have yearly budgets, and at the end of each year there is a spending spree to make sure that they spend right up to the penny the amount that’s budgeted for, otherwise that leftover money goes back to the general fund and is “lost”. In my case, I have funding for the entire project, so there is no end-of-year splurge and I can effectively “bank” the year on year underspends 

  2. A Stupid phrase… “I’ll do you a deal, stop fighting and you’ll be rich”, that doesn’t sound like progress to me].   Or someone getting on TV in the mainland… 

  3. As opposed to “oh, you worked hard in your community, developed a strong network, and maintained loyalty to your culture? Don’t call us, we’ll call you…”] 

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