Author Archives: Mirjam van Olst

The Geneva Trap – excitement and beautiful scenery

I’ve read The Geneva Trap by Stella Rimington this week. It’s the seventh book in the Liz Carlyle series and like the previous six, it didn’t disappoint. Liz is a tough and smart woman who works for MI5. She doesn’t let the men who work for any security agencies intimidate her. Using her wits and her intuition she plays an important role in solving the cases that she is involved in.

In The Geneva Trap, Peggy Kinsolving gets to play a bigger role than in the previous books in the series. Peggy has a background as a librarian. She joined MI6 after responding to a job advertisement because she was looking for a little bit more action than what she got in the library.

After working on a case with Liz Peggy transferred to MI5 and the two have worked together ever since.

I always assumed that the character of Liz Carlyle was based on Dame Stella, who is a former head of MI5. However, after listening to a podcast with Dame Stella, I feel that both Peggy and Liz were designed to resemble parts of their creator.

Reading the Liz Carlyle books is very relaxing during the week, but it generates more stress on Saturdays when I try to write my blog post.  There is not much to say about the book that I haven’t mentioned when writing about other books from the series. I also don’t want to give away any details about the story.

I, of course, recommend reading the book, as all Liz Carlyle novels are worth reading. I also recommend going to Lake Geneva. In this book, the main role of the lake is as a dumping place for dead bodies. In real-life though it’s absolutely stunning. Geneva is a nice city, but if you drive around the lake (or take a train) you’ll come across views that are breathtaking.

I was lucky enough to do a couple of days of consultancy work for a company that has its head office in Lausanne. The office has a rooftop terrace that looks out over the lake. The view was stunning. However difficult it is to do computer work in the sun, the inconvenience would be more than compensated by the inspiration that the view from that terrace would provide.

I also had the opportunity to visit the Montreux Jazz Festival once. We were there for the Prince concert, but for me, the highlight of the trip was the view from the balcony of the hotel room and the walks along the lake. (The concert was great, it just wasn’t as memorable as the views of the lake were for me.)

Montreux
Photo by Spencer Harbar, Triumph Media Limited

That’s enough holiday destination advertisements for one week I reckon. I’ll make sure to read a book that leaves me with more to write about next week.

Women in Tech – hopeful stories and helpful advice

I started reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez and it made me feel so insecure and anxious that I had to put it away for a while. It’s a testament to how important that book is but I still need to function, so I’ll read that in bits and pieces.
To counter the negativity I needed something upbeat, but as the feminist theme was still resonating strongly I chose a book by Tarah Wheeler on Women in Tech. I’ve been following Tarah on Twitter for a while and I think she is incredibly cool. I can try to explain here, but I won’t be able to do her justice, so just check out her feed yourself.

The book was a good choice. It’s not just positive stories (it can’t be when talking about women in tech), but it’s hopeful and kind. And as I’ve been a woman in tech for the last 20 years there are no earth-shattering surprises in the book to throw me off balance.
Writing this post was hard though. There are so many things in this book that I can relate to and that I would have liked to share a story about that I could have written a book about the book. I have tried not to, but this post still ended up being quite long.

The book is written as a chronological career in tech. It starts by talking about applying for jobs in the tech industry, covers some specifics about several different types of jobs that you can have in the industry, talks about your brand, about mentoring and being mentored and finally about moving into a leadership position in a tech company or even starting your own company.

The book starts with the shocking revelation that since I was born, the percentage of women working in computer science and achieving computer science degrees has decreased. This means that despite tech companies desperately looking for women to diversify their teams most women are still choosing a different career path. The reasons for this are numerous and a lot of them are hard to resolve.
One of the reasons is the unconscious bias of teachers, parents and eventually inevitably of girls themselves that math, physics, and technology are for boys. It’s in the wording and images that we use and in the way that we think about stereotypes for people in these fields.
Another important challenge is the lack of role models. I was lucky because my mum was a computer programmer. This was never discussed as being remarkable at home which means that for me the image of a woman working as a technologist was normal and natural. Most girls don’t have role models like that though and on TV and in books these roles are often still played by boys with floppy hair and glasses.

People also often feel like you need to be “special” to be able to succeed as a software developer or as a systems engineer or a security expert (or hacker). When I was still a developer myself people would often comment that “I must be really smart then”. You don’t need a special brain to be able to be successful in technology. If you are willing to work hard and you like puzzles (and I know a lot of women and girls who like puzzles) you are already half of the way there.

Tarah and her co-authors are very open about their successes as well as their failures in the book.
One of the lessons that she learned when moving into leadership roles is that you need to shift your approach. As a woman in tech, you’ll be spending quite some time making sure people see that you are good at what you do, that you belong. You’ll have to be more vocal about your achievements than what comes naturally to most women. As you move into a leadership role you need to adjust this. You shouldn’t be out to prove that you are the smartest person in the room. Instead, you should attempt to create an environment in which your team feels that they are smart and capable to allow them to do their best work. In this, she touches on one of my favorite topics of this moment; using the full capability of your teams by being a multiplier of their energy and intelligence. (For more information check out Multipliers by Liz Wiseman.)

The story of Kamilah Taylor, one of the co-authors, also resonated with me. Kamilah is a software engineer at Linked-In (at least at the time of writing the book) and has an MS in computer science and robotics.
She talks about the pressure of representing a minority (in her case 3 minorities) in a field. As you move up the ladder in your career people will inevitably start to look up to you. This is a great feeling and very reaffirming, but it also ups the stakes. It starts to feel like if you fail, you don’t just fail for you. It feels like you are letting down all the other women in your company or even in tech. Making a mistake or things not working out as you wanted gets a lot of extra weight.
This can work as a powerful motivator, but it also adds more stress that you need to cope with.
I feel this too. Occasionally I strive for things because I feel it will set a good example, rather than because it’s something that I genuinely care about.

The stories in Women in Tech are valuable and easy to relate to and the book is a very enjoyable read. What amazed me is the invitation that Tarah extends several times in the book to reach out to her personally for advice or help. It’s inviting and powerful. I’d be scared to do this as in my experience of writing a relatively successful tech blog, sharing your ideas makes people feel entitled to a lot of your time and energy anyway. On the other hand, as a lot of them will feel entitled you might as well invite the people who’d otherwise not feel comfortable enough to reach out.

The main thing that I took away from the book other than the pleasure of reading it, is to be even more aware of my unconscious biases. Being open-minded, thinking critically and constantly examining your own ideas and assumptions is what will allow us to grow as a people and even as a species. Find both the similarities and the differences between you and everyone else and use empathy to relate and connect.

Tarah Wheeler

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

This book has the nicest and most on point prologue I remember reading. It’s almost worth getting the book just for the prologue.

So long, and thanks for all the fish is the fourth book in the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy series. If you haven’t read the previous three it’s probably a good idea to start at the beginning, as there is some order in the chaos of traveling through the Galaxy. I do feel like the books are getting better with each one that I read, so if you can’t get into it right away it’s worth it to keep going.

Eight years after Arthur Dent was abducted by Vogons, which was seconds before the earth was destroyed to make room for a new hyperspace bypass, he’s back on earth. On earth, only a couple of months seem to have passed and Arthur has decided to slip back into his old life. This is surprisingly easy, as people have extraordinarily short memories.
There is one problem though. Arthur is not the same person he was eight years ago. Eight years of wandering across the Galaxy and experiencing all sorts of craziness alters your brain. Mind you, even ordinary experiences can alter our brains, so Arthur’s experience is hardly surprising.

Science has proven that once you have learned something new you can never go back to the way you were before that. You can’t even remember what it was like to not know this new thing that you learned. This makes it so hard for us normal people to have empathy for those around us who don’t already know what we now know. Arthur’s problem isn’t so much that he doesn’t have empathy, he would just like the Universe to stop doing whatever it’s doing to him.

I love all the funny and quirky references to science and the human condition in the book. You can enjoy the book without even noticing them but for me, they are the witty icing on the cake of a fun story. For example about confirmation bias and the fact that we have to apply critical thinking rigorously.
“He felt a spasm of excitement because he knew instinctively who it was, or at least knew who it was he wanted it to be, and once you know what it is you want to be true, instinct is a very useful device for enabling you to know that it is. ”
We shouldn’t just think critically about what others think and say, but we should also be critical of our own thoughts and intuition. We often see what we want to see and explain situations to fit our pre-existing narrative.

On his travels, Arthur meets a scientist who calls himself Wonko the Sane. He calls himself “the Sane” because so many people think that he’s crazy. He’s smart though and he says “You can’t possibly be a scientist if you mind people thinking that you’re a fool.”.
The world in general and social media more specifically make this even worse. Scientists are being called many names that are much worse than crazy for trying to share their knowledge with the rest of the world.

I admire the scientists who are able and willing to continuously endure this kind of abuse. You must be passionate about science and sharing what you learned to do that.
In a next life, I would like to be a scientist. I didn’t think this through but that’s ok because I don’t believe in a next life. It allows me to dream all I want.
I would find the abuse very hard to deal with, but I would love to work on discovering new things that would make the world a better, prettier, safer or nicer place. This is heavily romanticized, but it feels like it would be a wonderful way to make a difference to the world and the people on it.

Taking the work out of networking – a bit

When I decided to read Taking the work out of networking, I hoped that Karen Wickre had some sort of magical solution to make networking fun for those of us who don’t like going to events to meet a lot of people that we don’t know.
I’m what is apparently called an “extroverted introvert”. I like people and I like having conversations with them, but in small doses and for limited periods of time. I prefer dinner with a small group over a large event. It allows for more in-depth and meaningful conversations.

The book doesn’t reveal a magic formula that would allow me to avoid networking. Wickre, also classifying herself as an introvert, describes all the ways in which she manages and maintains her large network. She is so active connecting to people that I caught myself thinking “she can’t possibly be an introvert and want to do all of that all the time!”. I don’t know her, of course, and I don’t know how she lives her life so I have no way of knowing that. She probably has a different way to strike a balance and manage her energy.

The book describes networking at events as well as online networking via LinkedIn and Twitter. Although I’m already reasonably active on social media it was this part of the book that resonated most with me.
Before I read the book I decided whether to accept or ignore a LinkedIn connection request based mostly on how well I know the person who sent the request. Wickre has a good point though that if you are looking for career opportunities or for information on a certain topic, that your weak ties are probably going to be most valuable to you. People who you know well often have a lot of the same connections that you do. People who you don’t know well are more likely to add something different to your network. This makes sense, so I have changed my attitude related to deciding who to connect with on LinkedIn.

In the book, Wickre also talks about keeping your network warm by regularly sending messages to people to let them know that you are thinking about them and that you value them as a connection. She does this by for instance sharing a link to an article that you think they might find interesting. This is a bridge too far for me, but it did inspire me to put a recurring item on my todo list to connect with people I haven’t spoken to for a while. I try to reach out to one person per day. After only one week I can already tell that I won’t meet my target of one person per day, but if I reach out to two or three people per week that’s already two or three more than I would otherwise have reached out to.
To be clear, these are people that I’ve been thinking about anyway and that I would love to catch up with. Even though time and energy are limited it feels good and valuable from a personal point of view to reconnect with them.

Even though the book doesn’t contain any miracles to avoid networking or magic spells that can turn you into an extrovert the book did give me a just forceful enough nudge to get me to make some changes and take some action.
The book also mentions the film The Intern, which is one of my favorite films to watch on a plane, so it gets extra points for that too.

The Intern

Singing in the Brain – the impact of music

A few weeks ago while I was celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Dutch branch of our company, my mum and my best friend went to a theatre lecture by professor Erik Scherder. The plan had originally been that I would go to the lecture too, but the anniversary party took priority. The party was in theme park Efteling and it was fantastic. But I was also a bit bummed that I missed the lecture. Luckily my mum and friend are awesome and both of them got me a (different) signed book!!

In Singing in the Brain professor Scherder discusses a whole lot of scientific studies and their findings on a wide range of subjects that have to do with music and our brain. There are references to all studies if you want to dive in deeper. To keep this book readable for people who aren’t professors the information is simplified a bit.
The book does describe the different areas of the brain and what their role is in listening to music, playing music and how the brain is impacted by music. I hope professor Scherder isn’t too disappointed that I don’t remember the names of the areas of the brain and the role that they play. I believe that if you don’t have a significant amount of prior knowledge about our brain it is impossible to remember it all.

What did stick is that listening to music that we like has a positive impact on our mood. This is not just true for people with a healthy, regular brain, but also in many cases for people with depression, Parkinson, dementia or people who are suffering the aftermath of a stroke. Note that music doesn’t cure any of these diseases. It makes people temporarily feel better. That might seem obvious, but I find it interesting that this can also be proven by studying the brain.
Do also note that forcing people to listen to music that you like, but that they don’t necessarily enjoy will not have a positive effect. You can’t use the results of this study as an excuse to force your grandparents to listen to your favorite music!

What’s also interesting is that it’s scientifically proven that women around their ovulation are attracted to men who create music. If you always wanted to learn to play an instrument to pick up girls you had the right idea.

There is also a study that suggests that people run faster and technically better while listening to music. This is something many runners have different and often strong opinions on.
I personally don’t run with music. I like to hear my thoughts while running and I don’t want to worry about earbuds that might fall out (in the old days this was wires getting stuck and being annoying).
The same study also suggested that listening to soothing music after running allowed for a faster recovery. This sounds interesting, but I doubt the impact will be significant unless it makes me dance. The main impact after running is often getting a bit stiff if I stop moving (also after cooling down and stretching), so if music can stop me from sitting still for too long that might be helpful.

All in all Singing in the Brain is a very interesting book. I enjoyed reading it, but I do feel that you will get even more out of if you have prior training and a better understanding of our brain before you start reading it. If you are looking for specific information on the impact of music on our brain this book is a great starting point. It will lead you to a list of more specific studies that dive into a particular aspect much deeper.

If professor Scherder does more theatre lectures next season I will definitely try to go to one of them!

Erik Scherder

Midnight’s Children – a remarkable story about synchronicity

According to the Man Booker prize judges, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie might be the best book of all times. That’s what made me decide to read it. I don’t feel like I’ve read enough to have an opinion on what might be the best book of all times, but it’s a marvelous story.
The protagonist and narrator of the story is Saleem Sinai, who tells the story of his extraordinary life and how it’s fused to India’s political turmoil. Saleem is born at midnight on August 15, 1947, the exact moment of India’s independence from the United Kingdom. Because of this synchronicity, Saleem’s life is linked to that of the newborn country.

I must (to my shame) admit that I knew close to nothing about the history of India and the rest of the region. This book taught me a lot and also motivated me to read up on it a little bit more. If you have visited the region or are planning to this book is worth a read just for a very entertaining way to get yourself educated a bit. Do note that the book is fiction, so not everything should be taken literally. The book also gives the reader a glimpse at some cultural phenomena. One that I got to experience myself and that comes back many times in the book is eating (and chewing on) paan. It must have been about 5 years ago now and I still can’t read or write about it without my insides making a double backflip. (I know some of the people who were there read the blog and I’m sure they’ll be smiling while reading and remembering it.)

The life-changing events and absurdities in Saleem’s life keep coming and make sure that even though Midnight’s Children is a long read, it never gets boring. There is always a remarkable twist in the story just around the corner. The book is also full of brilliant one-liners and potential internet meme’s.
One that stood out for me is “Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.”. It’s easy to spend a few hours reminiscing about the truth in that.

The book constantly hovers between a retelling of history and wildly imaginative fictional story. A bit like Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time does too. Although it’s about a different time and place. Rushdie (or Saleem) addresses this on several occasions without specifying what is true and what is make-believe.
Saleem says “Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems – but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible.”. We don’t have to stretch our imagination to strongly feel this statement. I don’t think there are many people who don’t feel that the time in which we live is incredible, for better or for worse. I wonder how people will look back at today in let’s say 100 years’ time. Perhaps there will be a writer that can write a story as imaginative and as delicately linked to history as Rushdie did about the 31 years after India’s independence.

There’s even a statement from Midnight’s Children that might help to explain some of what we see happening today. “Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.” Who is a sane human and who isn’t remains up for debate of course…

More beautiful sentences and the interesting statements can be found throughout the book, but there is no way for me to weave them into a semi-coherent blog post. If you are curious about them, or about Saleem’s story I propose you just dive into Midnights Children and get fascinated by Rushdie’s beautiful writing and his incredible imagination and storytelling.

Good night stories for Rebel Girls – inspiring women with inspiring stories

I bought Good night stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli & Francesca Cavallo for a very smart and ambitious 14-year-old girl and loved the idea so much that I bought it for myself. The book starts with some advice.
To the rebel girls of the world:
Dream bigger
Aim higher
Fight harder
And, when in doubt, remember
You are right.
I’m not entirely convinced parents of 14-year-olds will agree that they are always right, but believing in yourself is a good point to start from in life.

The book contains 100 stories of special, fierce, talented and successful women. I find it inspiring and I’m fascinated by the stories. I have no idea if it is inspiring to a teenage girl. I don’t remember how the brain of a 14-year-old works. I do strongly believe that having role models helps. To see someone like you do something means that it’s easier to imagine that you can do it too. I’ve written before about my mum being a perfect role model for me as one of the first female software developers.
I’m not 100% sure that a short story in a book is enough to be a role model. But it also won’t hurt. I hope some of it sticks for the girls who read this book.

I tried to pick out one or two stories that I liked most, but I ended up with almost every page having a sticky note on it. In the end, I did make a selection but even if you feel you don’t need a role model I highly recommend reading the book and learning about all these inspiring women.
The stories are very diverse. There are stories about inventors, scientist, professional sports people, journalists, and activists. Something else that I love about the book is that it picks up on many themes that are relevant for all girls and women.

The Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (love the name) was a painter before women were allowed to get close to artists’ studios and people didn’t believe the paintings were hers. When her father found her a tutor, he pressed her to become his lover. She refused and had to fight this powerful man in court. She lived between 1593 and 1653, but this is something that still happens today, 400 years later.

Brenda Chapman is a director at Walt Disney Studios, who at a very young age decided that she wanted to create animated films with strong and brave girls and women in them. She didn’t like that the girls she saw in most animated films were helpless princesses. She moved on to create Brave with the strong princess Merida and won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for it.

Irena Sendlerowa is a Polish war hero who saved 2,500 children by fostering Jewish children in Christian families and give them Christian names. She wrote down their real names and their new names on slips of paper that she hid in jars in a friend’s garden. After the war, she dug up the jars and was able to reunite many kids with their real families. It’s something a certain modern-day organization with much more advanced options to keep track of children could have learned a lot from if they were at all concerned with the wellbeing of these vulnerable kids.

In Mexico, an exceptionally bright girl called Matilde Montoya wanted to be a doctor. She was told that women couldn’t be doctor’s and the university tried to expel Matilde more than once. Matilde wrote to the Mexican president, who stepped in and stood up for her in her fight against the unfair treatment she received from the university. It’s an example of men speaking up in support of women can really make a difference. Yes guys, I’m looking at you!

Women sticking together can also have a big impact as Wangari Maathai proved in Kenya by creating a movement of women who all planted trees in their villages. She started small. Several women from her own village collected seeds from the forest and planted them in cans at their homes. When they were strong enough, they planted them all around the village. Eventually, the Green Belt Movement expanded beyond the Kenyan border, forty million trees got planted and Wangari won the Nobel Peace Prize. A lot of small changes added together can have a huge impact. Don’t be discouraged by starting small, if we don’t start with small steps because we think they won’t matter we will not be able to achieve significant change.

Wangari Maathai

My heart hurts not being able to also write in more detail about the first suffragette’s in New Zealand, Kate Sheppard and computer scientist Margaret Hamilton who worked for NASA and saved the Apollo 11 mission by solving an issue that could have stopped Apollo 11 from landing on the moon in mere minutes. I hope you will read the book and learn about all the inspiring stories for yourself.