I had always wanted a job where I made a difference and when I found myself working at Nokia, I was constantly aware that a mobile phone is one of those items which enables everything else in life. The teenager standing in a dark, shattered bus-stop having missed the last bus, saying into his phone, “Dad, can you give me lift?”; the woman stranded on the hard shoulder saying, “Yes, it starts at two and I’m the head bridesmaid!”; the man pacing the road outside the hospital squealing, “It’s a boy!” into his phone – and a million other conversations, all enabled by Nokia.

My team leader was ahead of her time and gave us huge freedom to work how we thought best and in that culture we were creative, ambitious and adaptable. I was a fairly inexperienced software engineer being led by some great senior engineers and under their guidance we used Model-Based Engineering years before I heard that term, we automated everything we could long before I developed the financial awareness to fully understand the benefits, we valued co-location and break-out areas and we were agile before I had ever seen the word with a capital “A” on it. It was the most eye-opening and educational period of my professional life.

Now, as a manager of a department of developers and testers, I check every decision I make by asking myself, “Is this going to make these engineers feel the way I did at Nokia?”

But at Nokia I learned as much about people as I did about software. There are lots of people in the world who care about their jobs and get stressed when things don’t go well, and lots of people who remain calm in crises because they never really cared what happened anyway, but at Nokia there were people who cared about their work and could still remain professional in difficult times. However, that was really put to the test in the last months at Southwood, UK, where I worked, in the months before the site was closed.

We were all worried about our futures and the transition to our next jobs Beyond Nokia. There were lots of questions to answer about how to hand the software over to overseas sites, but the interesting thing was that suddenly, technical problems seemed harder too. If you’d asked us whether it was possible for some arbitrary company to hand over software to some strangers abroad, we’d have said Yes, of course. But ask us whether it was possible to hand over our software to other people who might not cherish it as we had and we said No, it can’t be done. Why not? “Well… well, there are lots of technical issues, lots of them. Definitely. What are they? Um, hard to say. Sooooo many.”

We started talking about technical solutions but of course the problems weren’t technical, they were emotional. And to the credit of the senior engineers and the leadership team, we realised this in time to realign our thinking and we made a real success of the handover. That year, 2012, was a milestone for me: Before then, I had not realised that I lived in a world where we all create falsehoods in order to hide from uncomfortable truths. But after 2012, I have seen it and recognised it many times. Normally (and I most definitely include myself here) we see evidence, we use some rational thinking to draw conclusions, and then we might feel some emotional response to those conclusions. “It’s snowing so I reckon the pitch will be covered and the football will be cancelled – that’s a shame because I like football.”

But if life treads a little too close to issues to which we are particularly sensitive, we reverse our thinking. We believe whatever is helpful for us to believe and then we start looking for anything that can be twisted into some sketchy evidence that might support our beliefs. “I want to be respected at work but that junior guy has been promoted above me. Ouch. Ah! Maybe he bribed the director. Yes, and that would explain why he said he couldn’t afford to go on holiday next month. It all fits!”

We create our own personal bubbles of alternative reality in which we find it a little easier to live than in the real world. It helps us cope with life but, within our bubbles, we usually imagine ourselves as less flawed than we really are, and other people are more to blame than they really are. (Guess what – that guy didn’t really bribe the director and he doesn’t deserve to have that rumour spread about him but hey, it saves me from facing the fact that I’m not so great at my job, so don’t you go popping my personal bubble of false reality, thank you very much.)

So while I was learning from Nokia and using that experience in subsequent jobs, these thoughts were crystallizing in my mind and they were appearing in fiction that I was writing. I had always written short stories and had had some competition success and minor publication. I had written a novel which was, ahem, not great because I hadn’t really had anything in mind to write about so it was a story without a point. But after 2012, the more often I witnessed Unreality Bubbles (you heard the term here first) the more I wanted to write about them.

Hence novel #2 – The Weeping Beggar. Publisher feedback was good this time but the deal I thought I’d clinched fell through, so I published it as an eBook on Amazon. It depicts the harm and also the comedy caused by people deluding themselves in difficult times, and contrasts that with two characters who very deliberately and consciously lie to others in order to protect them from a great evil.

The professional experiences I had at Nokia have stayed in my thoughts since 2012, but so too have the personal experiences. We were very proud of the software we wrote and the techniques we used, but I’m even prouder of the way we handed over our livelihoods to others while seeing through the initial emotional confusion and by managing to straighten out our own thoughts.

David Brown, 20 Mar 2020