When I asked to talk to Josie for Work In Progress, it was because I knew she had been unhappy in her work and desperately wanted a change. I’d known her for about a year and had seen her taking steps towards turning her passion for music into a career.
What I didn’t expect to learn was that she’d had a particularly bad experience in one job, where she was taken advantage of by her boss, and experienced sexism and bullying. We’ll come to it later, but I just wanted to give you all a heads up that this is part of her story.
Josie and I hit it off immediately when we met, finding we had plenty in common, from a love of singing (we met at We Are Sound), to sharing a dream of one day living in the country and running an outdoor adventure centre.
As we got to know each other, to my surprise I learned that Josie was a software developer. I was surprised, not because she’s not capable of this job, but because of the following:
- There are so few women working in tech/IT and studying computer science, so meeting a female developer is like meeting a mythical creature (only 17% of the UK tech sector was made up of women in 2017)
- Seriously, in my 10 years in ‘digital’ I’ve worked with one female developer. One.
- The idea of Josie sitting quietly at a desk all day is just silly. No offence meant to any developers out there, but Josie is constantly buzzing with energy, and brimming over with enthusiasm, and it just didn’t seem to fit.
And of course, she didn’t think it fit either.
Josie’s first career aspiration was to be a vet. She loved horses and did show jumping, skipping school to work at the stables.
At 8 or 9 she started playing the flute and realised she had a real talent for music, passing grade 5 before she started secondary school. She also took up piano and saxophone, getting to grips with those just as quickly, and participated in choirs and shows and sneakily played the school piano when nobody was around.
Where for many children (me included) playing an instrument at school was a chore, Josie loved every bit of playing and performing she did. She probably even loved practising scales. If anyone did, it would be Josie!
At secondary school, Josie initially found it difficult to fit in and so joined orchestras and choirs, focusing on her music and practicing at every opportunity. Thankfully she soon began to build up a group of like minded musical friends, with whom she’d have ‘classical jams’.
“I found where I fit in”
“I found where I fit in” she says, “and I knew then that I wanted to be a musician”. Josie wanted to go to the Royal College of Music in London, and continued to be in bands, the orchestra and choirs at school.
But, at around the age of 15, something happened.
“What?” I ask.
“Boys” she says.
Josie tells me that this distraction sent her off the rails, the focus in music was lost.
Although initially predicted average GCSE grades, Josie got “amazing results” she says “I realised I could be academic” and was accepted to do Sciences, Maths and Further Maths at A-Level. But, she hated it and was kicked out after the first term.
“I should have done music. I really regret it” she says.
So at around 17, Josie started a job in retail and was living with a boyfriend. She sold her instruments – she wanted independence, but really she just ended up “directionless”.
Josie thought a better path would be to follow in her dad’s footsteps, who is a director in the property industry. After sending off CVs to numerous estate agents, she got a job but immediately knew it wasn’t right and only stayed a couple of weeks.
At 18, Josie got a job as a marketing assistant at a new homes company. She said she did OK here, lasting 18 months, but she tells me she didn’t ever feel mature enough to take charge, and kept thinking, “Is this it”?
She started getting itchy feet to go travelling but instead got another job working at a media agency in London, commuting but saving up. She enjoyed the social “glamorous” side of the job, and learnt a lot in a short time, but since the idea of travel had been planted, it was something she had to do.
Josie and her boyfriend spent a year away, travelling through America, Fiji, New Zealand, South-East Asia and living in Sydney for 7 months.
While there, she got a job working in learning and development, looking after the provision of training for large company called APRA. “They were swanky” she says – she was working from fancy office high up a nice building, with great views of Sydney harbour. They offered her a permanent role, but she was homesick and so turned it down. This is another big regret for Josie.
But, the travelling had given her the space to realise that she needed a new plan. She hadn’t loved any of her jobs and she was fed up of constantly getting itchy feet. Josie decided she either needed to do something she loved, or something that would make her enough money to pursue a passion in her free time.
“…I underestimated how much time you need to spend doing something you love to be happy”
“I chose the latter” she says, disappointedly, “and I underestimated how much time you need to spend doing something you love to be happy”.
I agree, and think this is an easy trap to fall into. We need cash, so we follow ‘traditional’ career paths, hoping that we’ll have enough time around work, family and life admin to do the things that really fulfill us. While some people manage this, it is a difficult balance to strike, and many of us get stuck on the merry-go-round as a result.
Josie looked to the world of IT and decided she wanted to write code. She knew there was money to be made there, and she was good at maths and with computers and wanted a role where she would be respected for these skills.
She admits that part of this was that “it looked cool. I even applied for a job with MI6 Business Intelligence”. Josie realised she needed a computer science degree, so in 2008 when she got back from travelling she started studying through the Open University.
Of course, there were bills to pay and after initially struggling to find work in the recession, she got a job locally at nutritional animal health company Merial, doing DNA profile testing for cattle organisations.
I had to stop her at this point and gawp in amazement at the range of jobs Josie has had in a relatively short period of time. I thought I had been around the career block! She laughs, and agrees it’s all been a “bit random”.
Josie struck up a online friendship with a fellow employee who taught her to code over MSN Messenger (remember that, kids?). He gave her tasks to do and she gained enough knowledge to get her first developer job. She was still doing her degree but it was a useful boost.
While at Merial, Josie and her partner had their son, Charlie, and it was when he was six months old that she moved into her developer role. It was with a payroll outsourcing company, and although she’d looked forward to beginning her career there, it turned out to be nothing like she hoped.
“I felt like I had to work ten times as hard as anyone else [to be taken seriously]” she says. Her colleagues assumed she got the job because she was a woman, and because she was attractive. She was shown no respect for her intelligence, or her skills and experience.
The job itself was draining, and she felt like she was chained to her desk, coding non stop in a silent room with no interaction or social element.
Most damaging however, was the treatment of Josie by her boss. Josie‘s relationship with her partner ended during this time, and a relationship with her boss had struck up. But this was toxic – he promised her stability and love, while at the same time treating her horribly at work.
“He timed my bathroom breaks” Josie says, “and he yelled at me, telling me I didn’t make enough progress with my work”. Nobody else experienced this. He would call her into a meeting room just to shout at her, and she often left in tears.
Josie was exhausted and vulnerable, a full time single mum with a baby that didn’t sleep well, and she was taken advantage of.
I’m getting angry at this point. “He bullied you” I say. “Yes” she agrees. This was emotional abuse, as well as a massive abuse of power. With one hand he was promising her a happy life, and with the other he was crushing her spirit.
Josie had to quit her degree, having neither the time nor energy for it anymore.
I’m pleased to say though that she decided enough was enough and she wouldn’t be treated that way. Josie threatened to sue the company, and wrote them a letter detailing every bit of abuse she’d faced.
They rolled over, offering her money to keep quiet.
As for her boss, he did not lose his job. As far as she knows, he suffered no consequences.
Josie has suffered with anxiety and stress since then. “It was a massive confidence knock” she says, “and not the best start to my new career”.
Despite this, she stayed in IT for 6 years, eventually getting the respect, experience, training, and money she wanted and deserved. But, she found the day to day of it boring, and started thinking about other paths.
She came very close to starting a therapy business but “chickened out. I was interested in the treatment of anxiety, it’s fascinating with good money, but it wasn’t the right time. How could I help other people when I wasn’t happy myself?”
So, Josie started to see a therapist, and it was through this treatment that she realised she needed to do something for herself. “She [the therapist] asked me, ‘what do you do for yourself, what are your hobbies?’ and I was like, errrr…”
Josie realised she wanted excitement, not just a life that “goes through the motions. Not a 9-5, go to work, go home, see to Charlie, go to bed, repeat”.
One of the things that therapist asked was what Josie loved to do as a child. Perhaps that could help her discover her hobby, a passion, and a path. For Josie, that was music. She had to rediscover music.
She started with an adult guitar course, but it didn’t spark anything. When she moved to Cambridge with her new partner however, she discovered We Are Sound and this was the ignition she needed.
“I’d forgotten what it felt like, that pure joy from making music” she says, grinning. And that was it, she was hooked again.
“I never dreamed of doing some of the things I’ve done now” Josie tells me, having joined a band, performed in all sorts of venues and started a volunteer role in music therapy. She tells me she has largely overcome her fear of performing, and it has helped improve her mental health.
“I never dreamed of doing some of the things I’ve done now”
And this reignited passion made Josie realise that she needed to focus on happiness – it was too important not to. “It’s not about money anymore. All you do is spend it on drink and food to make yourself feel better about your shit life. I just want the joy”.
Josie wanted to set her own hours, sing, perform, gig, and spend more time with her son. It was at this time that she lost her then current IT job, but actually saw it as a blessing – now the time felt right to put wheels fully into motion.
To make some cash to get by on, Josie recently started an ironing business locally.
It suits in terms of setting her own hours, and she is starting to get some regular business, but she sees it as temporary.
Josie is also starting to teach piano which fits her better, and her first pupil starts soon. She’s also in the process of getting a function band off the ground – “I’m super excited. I just want to sing on stage, forever!” she laughs.
Josie admits things have become very tight now that she has switched decided not to go for another full time IT role. She’s claiming Universal Credit and has “just enough for bills and food”.
She tells me how she’s been accused of not doing the best for her family. She has worried this herself, but remembers how miserable she was and says her being miserable helps nobody.
…”my family comment on how happy I am”
“I had to think about my values and what is really important – creativity, freedom and adventure… my family comment on how happy I am, how much sparklier I’ve become. I just need to make some money now!”
Josie has also thought about pursuing music therapy but she would need a degree and training which she can’t currently afford. While she isn’t 100% sure which musical path is the right one, Josie admits spending thousands on further education isn’t wise.
“Nowadays, you need to be sure of what you want to do so you don’t waste your time or your money.” She’s right, I think – while there are some low cost or free educational resources, many others are expensive, and your time is valuable too.
But, like Josie, you may be able to dip your toe and see what you like, providing you know your general direction. She says that just because you don’t like one thing – in her case the guitar lessons – it doesn’t mean that direction is the wrong one.
This is good advice. If you know your spark and joy lies vaguely ‘that way’ then take a step and see where you end up.
Josie has had a series of negative experiences in her working life, from simple boredom, to the seriousness of sexism and bullying in the workplace. She has regrets, times she wishes she had gone another way – we agree that you make choices that feel right at the time.
I also think it’s important to recognise when something isn’t your fault, or when life deals you a shitty hand. You don’t have to carry the weight of every experience on your shoulders and if your mental health is compromised, there are many sources of help and advice out there. The Mind website is a great place to start.
Career wise, Josie and I agree that you might end up somewhere you don’t want to be, but it’s never too late to change it.
Rethinking our relationship with money could be an important part of this. We often get stuck because not having that job will mean having to change our lifestyle and being less comfortable, and honestly that’s scary. It terrifies me for one!
But we can create a prison for ourselves by thinking this way, and perhaps we must come to terms with sacrificing comfort (at least for a little while) for the sake of pursuing what will make us truly happy.
Josie’s advice? “Be brave! It’s scarier, and I’m poorer, but I’m so much happier”.