My friend Jane Norman

My dear friend Jane Norman died a year ago yesterday, on the day after the UK’s 2015 General Election. I was working on the Parliamentary expenses system that week, preparing for the upcoming Parliament, getting ready to erase the losers and import the winning MPs into the system. Jane’s godson called to tell me she’d been admitted to hospital with severe pneumonia and it was thought she was unlikely to survive. She’d been seriously ill, and in and out of hospital for several months.

The systems work at IPSA was largely done, so I was able to abandon my post to be with her as she died. She was very much herself to the last, and I still miss the fun and the fury she brought to the world, even during her last moments. She was always either for something enthusiastically or against something, viscerally – there was nothing in between.

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I spoke at her funeral, and in memory of her wonderful spirit, I repeat those words today:

I first met Jane about 35 years ago when I was living with her close friend, the stage designer, Michael Annals. Michael had arranged to look at a derelict lighthouse in Dorset with a view to exiling himself from London and its temptations, so the three of us piled into Michael’s tiny orange Datsun for a daytrip to Dorset and back.

Picture: Jane Norman & Michael Annals

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When we met for the first time Jane struck me as what my mother might call ‘actressy’. Indeed, for one horrific moment I thought she might be Glenda Jackson. But whilst my mother wouldn’t have meant the term entirely kindly, Jane’s way of making every moment more colourful, more dramatic, and more enjoyable, attracted me immediately, and I have loved her for it ever since.

Whether it was her work in the theatre, as administrator, costume and props maker, that made her what she was, or whether the theatre was a natural home for her personality, I shall never know.

Whilst she may have been theatrical, there was no posturing about Jane. She felt things intensely and expressed her feelings about them directly, immediately and with startling honesty. She was always authentic. She was always deeply curious about her friends, too, about why they did this or that, and what they ought to do instead, but she was almost equally  curious about strangers, seeming to know them and pronounce judgement on them instantly. ‘That man has a beady eye,’ she might say, if she took against a perfect stranger.

Picture: 80th Birthday Celebrations

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Jane’s talent for friendship enlivened all our lives. She was warm, supportive, loyal, loving, entertaining, honest – and explosively critical, too, if we fell short. Never black and white, she was always filming in technicolour.

Picture: Jane Norman and her best friend, Antonia Pemberton

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On her last morning, in hospital, when her godson Dexter, her friend Antonia, and I were at her bedside, she made it clear that she didn’t want to go on. But she still needed to know whether Ed Miliband had won the General Election for Labour. ‘Sadly no,’ Antonia said. There was a pause as she took the news in. Then, ‘Fuck,’ she said with all the strength she could muster. It raised  eyebrows on the ward, but it was a wonderful and entirely typical exit.

We all miss Jane’s warm enthusiasm for life, and, from time to time, her incandescent fury too.

There but for the Grace of God….

Perhaps a software designer should rejoice at the discomfort of his or her rivals (we all enjoy the thrills of schadenfreude from time to time), but I couldn’t help feeling that ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ when I read this scathing account by Lucy Kellaway of her experience with Oracle’s iExpenses.

Doing Expenses is Truly Loathsome

She speaks for many when she writes:

There is something about doing expenses that has always been loathsome, even in the old days when all you had to do was fill in a few columns on a sheet of A4. There is the dispiriting matter of emptying pockets and handbags in search of missing receipts – as well as the existential uncertainty about what it is OK to claim for.

I remember seeing a survey saying that many office workers would rather scrub the company’s lavatories than do their expenses. I’d go further still. Not only would I rather scrub loos, I’d rather have a root canal.

Designing business software isn’t easy at all, and sometimes you strive with all the imagination you posses to design and build something that’s easy to use, and still end up creating a monster. Software designers are often people like me who’ve spent their careers programming software, or configuring other kinds of business software, generally for those forgiving kinds of people who work in accounting or other administrative departments. They’re nice people – and nerdy.

What we fear the most is ‘ordinary people’ or, worse still, ‘children’, who aren’t technical experts and rely on their instincts. They’re like the child who points out that the emperor had no clothes. And expenses software is the kind of software that ordinary people have to use.

But we must listen to ordinary people. If you’re a software designer you must let others help you with the graphical and logical design (what happens next when you click this or that button), and you must embrace that appalling moment when you put your software into the hands of someone who doesn’t know it at all, isn’t a software expert and isn’t someone predisposed to be kind to you, such a parent or a partner (perhaps your own children are the best candidates in this respect). You must watch what they do and force back the thought that they’re stupid or that it’s obvious what they ought to do. You have to be horribly humble, accept criticism and start again, if that’s what’s needed. It’s hard to bear.

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I like to think that Lucy Kellaway would like our expense@work system more than she likes Oracle’s iExpense, and I’d welcome the opportunity to show it to her. But if you’re afraid of a journalist, think of the 650 MPs who use expense@work for their Parliamentary expenses in the UK. A more demanding and terrifying set of users you cannot imagine, but they seem to put up with it, more or less (well, they have to!).

 

Behind the scenes – expense@work at IPSA

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I’ve just returned to Prague from London, where I and my colleagues played a very minor role on the fringes of the UK’s General Election, helping to prepare expense@work, our expense management software, for the new intake of MPs and for the management of Winding Up expenses for those who were defeated or are standing down.

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This was a good test of the design we implemented five years ago for the then new statutory body, IPSA (Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority), which was set up to prevent any repetition of the scandalous abuse of the House of Commons’ former expenses regime. We had to come up with a design capable of expansion, extension and modification of the rules.

We originally implemented expense@work in just six weeks, following publication of the new MPs’ Expenses Scheme. It was the most intense and exciting system implementation project I have ever worked on. and we went live just in time for the new Parliament in May 2010.

expense@work has worked well over the last five years, tracking MPs’ expenses against budgets for staffing, office costs, accommodation and travel expenses, capturing and storing images of invoices and receipts.

The rules are complex, taking account of each MP’s family circumstances, the location of their constituency and their choice of main residence (London or constituency). And expense@work must work with payment cards, stationery retailers, travel websites (such as Trainline) and enable automatic validation against the rules at every point of entry. Workflow must ensure multi-level authorisation procedures where appropriate, and must enable export to IPSA’s public website:

IPSA’s Publication Website

Every year the rules change a little, so the last few days have been about simplification as well as managing the election process. We closed down the system on Wednesday at lunchtime and were ready for the MPs on Friday morning, however bleary-eyed they might have been after a long night of victory or defeat.