Monday, March 30, 2009

Nigel Seel: about me

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Nigel Seel: about me

v3. February 2017

I was born in Bristol, in the West of England in January 1951. My father, Frederick Stanley Seel was a welder (and later lecturer in that subject) and my mother, Beryl Joan Seel (née Porter) a housewife (and later teaching assistant). I was the eldest, with younger brother Adrian and even younger sister Elaine.

At primary school, another child confided: ‘The difference about you is that when we get a newspaper, we all turn to the sports pages, while you read the front page.’ The paper of choice on the Henbury council estate was the tabloid Daily Mirror. At junior school, I would on occasion hide in the school library rather than go down to the playing fields with the other children. What a delight to read about science in peace and tranquillity!

Aged 11, I passed the 11+ exam and went to Bristol Grammar School where, as a working class child, I entered an establishment modelled on the public school system. The adjustments were difficult and I developed an anarchist and libertarian frame of mind.

Entering Warwick University in 1969, I studied maths, physics and engineering in the first year but found it very tedious, reprising work I'd already covered in the sixth form. I spent most of my time playing lead guitar in a band and then joined the Socialist Society. Fascinated by Marxism, I changed course at the end of the first year to Philosophy and Politics, but then spent most of my time in political activism. The inevitable result was exam failure at the end of the second year. Exiting the university, I moved to London, a member of the International Marxist Group (IMG) in the struggle against Thatcherism - I became at one point a member of the National Committee.

After a string of temporary jobs, I was persuaded by my then-girlfriend, Val, to become a teacher, entering Furzedown College, Tooting in 1972 and graduating with a Teacher’s Certificate in 1974. In 1976, I moved to Liverpool at the suggestion of the IMG and taught mathematics at Ormond High School in Maghull. It was here that I was encouraged to enrol with the Open University as it was clear teaching was becoming an all-graduate occupation.

Teaching didn't suit me at all. Some years later, my Head of Department at Ormond (who had to retire with a nervous breakdown) said of me: “Great with mathematics, really knows his stuff, but lousy with the kids.”

The problem is rooted in my personality: in a working-class comprehensive, the optimal teacher is ‘leader of the pack’ - stern but fair with a genuine liking for adolescents. My interpersonal style is transactional and ideas-based, good for tutorials and with those eager to learn; not at all effective for crowd-control and ‘lion-taming’.

Becoming disillusioned with teaching and with left-wing politics, I resigned from both in 1976-7, entering a government training scheme in computer programming (punched cards on an IBM 360).

In 1978 I married Clare Youell, a fellow ex-teacher and we moved to London where I taught COBOL programming (much easier than secondary maths!) as part of the same Government scheme. In short order we moved out of South London to Windsor, and then to Slough as I became a programmer with Kienzle Data Systems on the Slough Industrial estate. Shortly afterwards Alex was born, and then Adrian.

After some years programming and bug-fixing, I became more interested in the problems of specifying software and in 1982 was offered a job at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories. STL was one of the five worldwide research labs of IT&T and I joined the formal methods group at Harlow. This was a huge learning curve, as I was still finalising my undergraduate degree, not awarded until 1984. The new job required learning functional computing languages (LISP, ML) and becoming somewhat-familiar with abstract algebra, logic and category theory. At this point we relocated to a semi in Saffron Walden. A few years later in 1986, we moved to our first detached home in Sible Hedingham, Essex.

In the mid-eighties, Artificial Intelligence suddenly became high-profile and I was granted funding to work in the area. I was able to combine this with a PhD programme jointly with Surrey University, supervised by Professor Bernie Cohen who had been a colleague of mine at STL before moving into academia. The PhD was awarded in 1990 for a thesis entitled “Agent Theories and Architectures”.

Times were now hard for STL and the lab was acquired by the Canadian company Bell-Northern Research (BNR), the R&D arm of Northern Telecom and Bell Canada. The more speculative research programmes were closed down and I was forced to make a career change to public telecommunications network design, learning my trade as a carrier architect. This was another steep learning curve, involving much travel as Nortel sought business with the newly privatised operators in the emerging markets of Eastern Europe.

I also found time in the early 1990s to become a qualified hang-glider and paraglider pilot. Many Sundays were spent at North Weald airfield, near Harlow, being towed to 800 feet to spin and glide the paraglider back down to earth. The long-suffering family back at home were less impressed.

In 1995 we moved to Maidenhead, the centre of Nortel’s activities in the UK and in 1998 I was appointed technical architect for a major outsource programme whereby Nortel would rebuild Cable & Wireless’s UK national network. For the next 18 months I was based in Bracknell leading a team of 30 architects skilled in transmission and optical networking; ATM, Frame Relay and IP data networking; circuit-switched voice and intelligent network engineering and network management systems. I couldn't help but notice that the consultants I had employed in these roles were earning three times as much as I was.

As 1999 came around, the Internet boom began in earnest and I left Nortel to become a freelance network architect; my company was called Interweave Consulting Ltd. After a slow start in the autumn of 1999, business rapidly became very lucrative with contracts with a British Gas start-up called 186k and further work with Cable & Wireless.

The boom was beginning to falter as 2000 came to an end and in January 2001 I joined Cable & Wireless Global as Chief Architect. Soon Clare and I were relocated to the United States based in Vienna, Virginia. A frustrating period followed as C&W Global failed to rise to the challenges of a rapidly deteriorating market, culminating in its bankruptcy. We were relocated back to the UK in April 2003 living first in Merstham, Surrey and then buying a property close to Andover, Hampshire in October of that year.

I immediately restarted my consultancy but after some initial contracts times were difficult. I was offered a job at the management consultancy Mentor Technology International in April 2004 and worked there until January 2006 when that too descended into administration. (During my time at Mentor, I wrote my book).

Again restarting my consultancy, I found contracts with a number of companies including Sky, BT with its public WiFi ‘Wireless Cities’ project, and with the Dubai World Central airport city project during the first half of 2008. However, the major recession of 2008-2010 again made consultancy life difficult although subsequently things picked up a little, particularly in the telecoms security area.

Meanwhile I was still finding time to revisit my original preoccupation with theoretical physics. In 2008 I enrolled in the Open University third level physics course on Electromagnetism, and in 2009 studied the companion course on Quantum Mechanics. In 2010 I started the Open University's Maths MSc course but had to abandon the first module (the Calculus of Variations) when a security contract presented itself with the usual travel and long hours. During this period we also moved house to Wells, Somerset: our new home needed a major (and expensive) makeover.

I have taken the Myers-Briggs personality inventory on several occasions, scoring consistently INTP (Clare scores INFP). More precisely, my scores indicate a moderate degree of introversion (I), which is capable of simulating extraversion for consultancy purposes. I score very highly on intuition (N). My engagement with the world is definitively rigorous in thought rather than fuzzy touchy-feely (T) while my P score is moderate (i.e. close to the P-J boundary) indicating a fluid, adaptive personality rather than a prescriptive one.

Most people have found me to be slightly withdrawn and self-contained on first contact. I don't really indulge in the more traditional forms of "rugby club"-style male bonding and as is often the case with INTPs, it is alleged that I have little small talk.

As can be gathered, I have never been that interested in sports. Team games like football, rugby or cricket bore me rather although I was keen on cross-country running at school and have jogged at intervals. My other sporting interest was martial arts: as a teenager I was an active judoka, passing through the junior grading system. As an adult I flirted again with Judo and also with Karate and Aikido briefly. In America and shortly afterwards Clare and I practiced T’ai Chi to the improvement of our sense of balance and memory.

I like writing and my book “Business Strategies for the Next-Generation Network” (PDF) was published in 2007. This had strong autobiographical threads in its survey of the technical, economic and human dimension of the transition to Internet-based public networking. I have also tried my hand at fiction which is far more difficult than technical writing on account of that you have to write intelligently and perceptively about people rather than systemic abstractions. You can see where I'm going with this.

During 2011 and the first half of 2012 I was a contributing writer at sciencefiction.com, providing weekly articles on science topics and science-fiction book reviews (here). This was not well-paid, and I packed it in when the ownership changed and the site went off in the direction of computer games, SF films and TV shows.

On March 26th 2014, with carrier investment in new networks still woefully limited, I decided to close Interweave Consulting and retire. Subsequently I’ve spent more time keeping fit at the gym and engaging with interests including physics, genetics, artificial intelligence, economics and history. Most days I get to blog on these issues at “Wading Through Treacle”.