Manchester Keeps Me Here - Principles of BLISS #2

A concise interview with Vimla Appadoo, Community and Marketing Manager at SpacePortX, which somehow led to this rambling yet thankfully short essay on Michael Jackson, feminism, and tech startups.

Vimla Appadoo brings a lot of intelligence and energy to Manchester's tech scene. I chatted with her briefly, and this is what I learnt:

  1. There are other South London Tamils, like me, living in Manchester and working in tech and that still continue to listen to the music of Michael Jackson.
  2. I need to stop being so complacent when it comes to feminism and actually find out what it is and what’s going on.
  3. Service design will always be a vague concept to me, but one of its principles, about putting the problem first and then the idea second, is useful. In my mid-20s, I used to drive my bosses crazy with my million-and-one ideas a day about how to do things better, without considering the actual need for them. Being a Customer Experience Manager, it is good to remind myself that ‘new’ isn’t as good as ‘needed’.


I first met Vimla soon after moving to Manchester when I went to see a space she runs called SpacePortX. Basically SpacePortX is like Byker Grove but for people who like computers. This might be an inaccurate depiction but I am sticking with it.

Manchester is so small that I then saw Vimla a few weeks later, standing on Market Street and dressed up as Michael Jackson, busting moves. As a lifelong Jacko fan, this struck a deep chord with me.

Vimla also does a lot of other things that don’t involve sadly passed pop icons. It is overwhelming to see the number of plates she spins. Her job means she is at the heart of many digital shenanigans that happen in the Northern Quarter and further, but she still manages to find time to get involved in other ways too.

Just after I had this interview, which took the form of 10 rapid-fire questions, I had an epiphany. An epiphany about women. And the epiphany was that I am under-informed and a bit thick.

My friend Jonathan, who works at the British Council, visited me. He is very well read and astute and all that jazz. Incidentally, he also likes jazz. The topic of feminism came up due to the interview I just had with Vimla. I did my usual “I wouldn’t say I was a feminist because I think sexual equality should be a given and I don’t want to jump on this bandwagon, especially one that involves Benedict bloody Cumberbatch taking a picture of himself wearing a ‘I am a feminist’ t-shirt, God I hate Benedict Cumberbatch!” line.

Jonathan put me right. I am not clever enough to repeat his words accurately here but they were effective. And he told me to read a book called ‘Feminism is for Everybody’ by Bell Hooks. Yes, that’s actually her name. So I will. You should too.

Anyway, since then, I have started noticing the sheer amount of men at all these networking events that I go to around Manchester. And yes, the uneven representation of women in tech extends to my own agency, BLISS.

So I have decided to use these first few interviews to draw a spotlight on women who work in and around this great city.

So here is Vimla. Multi-skilled, tech-hungry, Jacko fan, answering 10 questions.

Oh, by the way, each question had a Jackson song-title embedded within it. This is the kind of highbrow journalism that people like Benedict Cumberbatch wouldn’t deign to take part in. Also, Vimla didn’t cotton onto the Michael Jackson theme until the seventh question. And she calls herself a ‘fan’...

***

We have a couple of things in common. For you, what’s it like being a young Tamil in the North as opposed to being a young Tamil in the South? Do you find it very different, like chalk and cheese, black or white?

Manchester is one of the most diverse places I have lived in. I grew up in Surrey and being in London is amazing. But I think there is such a long way for Manchester to go in general. Working in tech and startups, well, it’s a very male, young, white industry in and of itself. Being a young, female, brown person has its own difficulties to overcome. But I wouldn’t put that down to anything, that’s just the way society is at the moment.

One of the missions of organisations like Manchester Digital and SpaceportX is to help make Manchester a viable alternative to London for new tech companies. In your opinion, how can this be achieved? And as well as being an alternative to London, do you ever see Manchester, as a digital economy, being able to beat it?

I don’t see it as a case of beating it, I think it is about being an alternative. We already have a massive talent pool from four universities in the surrounding area plus we have affordable co-working spaces which is one of the things that London doesn’t have. Plus it has more of an intricate community that is easier to get involved in, and yet there are still connections there for wider outreach.

There’s a lot of talk about something called ‘The Northern Powerhouse’. From the conversations you’ve been hearing and having, has the Government been listening to the needs of the incumbent businesses in Manchester or do you agree with criticisms that they don’t really care about us up here.

That’s a very tough question because it is very broad as to how you define ‘us’. But one of the benefits of having a Tory Government is that they are very supportive of small business and entrepreneurs. One of the interesting things about Manchester that there is a 100% Labour Council under a Tory Government, and seeing how that transpires through the Northern Powerhouse would be really interesting.

So you run SpacePortX. Is it a great place to work or are there certain days that just make you want to scream?

Nothing’s ever smooth sailing but I am not the kind of person that would scream out. I take it as it comes. I would get bored if everything was easy. I love the challenge and I like to be in the middle of a busy creative environment.

Could you tell us about your work in Service Design, and perhaps offer a definition of it? I have done a bit of research into it myself and it does sound a bit vague and off the wall.

Service design flips the common assumption about product design and services on its head. Rather than innovating and coming up with an idea that you think will be revolutionary, you first come up with the problems that people are having and make solutions for them. You integrate human-centred design into what you are doing to provide solutions that people actually need and want to use. Rather than innovating for innovation’s sake, you are innovating with the end-user in mind from the beginning.

It is definitely something that more and more companies are getting the hang of, whether they recognise that it is service design or not. This is because customer service as a value is increasing and more and more products are going into to service spectrum. If you look at apps or phones or websites, not only are they are products but they are also a service, to access information or to track your health, whatever it may be.

If you could spend only one day in your life, only *one day* working for a tech company, which one would that be?

Just one day? That is really tough. Really tough. I am torn between saying a company that is doing loads of social good or Facebook or Google. Actually, if it is just for one day I’d pick one of the latter two to see what it would be like to be an employee there, but I’d pick the first if I knew I could make a massive impact in that one day.

I’ve got a special lady in my life. (Editor’s note: This is where the Michael Jackson thing started getting tenuous) You run Ladies That UX which supports females in the tech industry. Are there any special ladies in your life that you look up to?

I don’t actually run Ladies that UX, I just go along, but I do run SheSaysManchester, which is fine. Lizzie Dyson who works at the BBC runs Ladies that UX. (Editor’s note: Research fail).  We had our first Women in Tech dinner a couple of weeks ago and I would definitely think for tech in particular there is a hell of a lot of scope to close that gender gap.

In terms of role models, this is something I have been thinking about because there is a whole thing about how young girls needing female role models to aspire to be. And I don’t know if I agree with it wholly. Young women need to know there are other women in the industry, but in terms of equality, you should be able to have a male role you aspire to be, and males should have female role models - it shouldn’t be so heavily gendered.

You are given £100,000 to invest in a tech solution to a problem, and you wanna be startin’ somethin’ straight away with it, what would it be?

Am I allowed to be include something I am already working on? I am developing an app for people with Parkinson’s which supports them through touch screen technology.

We all have someone to look up to. Is there anyone in the wider business world you see as a cautionary tale, perhaps even look *down* on, and who is it?

I think it is never just one person I look up to or even one person whose mistakes I learn from. I try and learn from everything around me. I aspire to be the people I associate with.

Someone once said you are the average of the five people you hang out with the most.

Oh that’s interesting. But doesn’t that mean everyone will turn out to be the same?

Well, no, they hang out with different people, don’t they?

Oh yeah.

Final question. What would you say to a new business or established company considering heading to Manchester, how would you pitch the whole “Come to Manchester, this is it, it’s great” thing.

In two years I have managed to speed up my career to a point where I imagine it would have taken 10 years in London and that is because of the ecosystem that Manchester provides and the connections you can make. There is nothing that drags me back down south. Manchester keeps me here. Standard of living, cost of living, job prospects, community, there is everything here.