Tag Archives: Ashorne Hill

Internet Explorer


Throughout my time at work, either browsers did not exist (Tinplate R&D and before) or we used Internet Explorer as our standard browser (Ebbw Vale and after). Which made it quite easy for a developer, since you didn’t have to complicate your code so that the style sheets and JavaScript worked for all conceivable browsers.

When I worked in Tinplate R&D we had Lotus Notes for email and “databases”, but no browser or browser-based email systems. That was still in the Windows 3.11 days, and your various apps were things like Lotus Smartsuite, Windows Explorer, Lotus Notes. I still remember from a course in Ashorne Hill that at the time people were very concerned about cyber security, and although at the time there was talk of an intranet and firewall, it took a few years before it was available on our works PCs.

Also, access to the big wide world of the Internet was restricted to the selected few who had a clear need for it and were trusted not to make a pigs ear of it. The first time browsers became more widespread was when I had moved to Ebbw Vale – the standard then was Internet Explorer 4 on Windows 95, and I’m pretty sure I had internet access, which I needed for my distance learning course with CompuTeach.

At the time I did not develop any web pages, but made use of a page built for me to extract Focus Six-generated WK1 spreadsheets to generate my first generation traffic light graphs. That all changed with my move to Llanwern, where the standard at the time was IE5 on Windows NT – funny enough people still called the browser Netscape from the days when the initial browser was Netscape before the business decided to standardise on Internet Explorer.

Shortly afterwards we upgraded to IE6, which was the one where Microsoft had decided no longer to support applets. And since applets were at the time being used on our web pages to display a variety of charts, those people who got upgraded all of a sudden were unable to see their graphs – that is, until Sun Microsystems brought out their patch for applets to work despite Microsoft’s lack of support.

The next version was IE8, and that was also the last one, since Windows XP could not support any later versions of that browser. Meaning that for the majority of users time stood still for the best part of 10 years. So much so that in the end applications like FutureMail (our new email system replacing Lotus Notes, in essence Office365) or Yammer required the use of Google Chrome instead of IE8.

Which is rather ironic, since at some point I did have FireFox and later Google Chrome on my PC and was challenged why I had non-standard software installed. I really had to prove that it helped in my job as a developer, and all of a sudden, the limitations of Windows XP forced the powers-that-be into adopting non-standard themselves.

When I left I did have one of the new laptops in order to explore how our current systems were going to behave on Windows 8.1, so I managed to get a taste of things to come, but for one reason or another Google Chrome was still there for emails. But heaven forbid if you tried to use it for other sites, because then you were committing the immortal sin of using non-standard software ! I did, and I know why. Some Microsoft-generated web pages don’t behave very sensibly or even refuse to load in browsers other than Internet Explorer.

My web pages were tested and passed with flying colours – showing that not all Microsoft-generated content (I used ASP.NET for my web development) is restricted to their own browser.

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Learning by Doing


Something that I’ve noticed over the years is that I only truly learn something if I can apply it in real life. For instance, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, I managed to apply the principles of Finite Element Analysis when I was performing studies of dehydrogenation, even though I proved at the exam that as a student I had not understood the subject when I only learned it in theory.

Likewise with subsequent courses on Hot and Cold Rolling at Ashorne Hill, which merely served to provide a general background to the topics, but no clear understanding because I never really applied any of the course’s content.

This is not to say that I didn’t learn a thing in those courses, but it didn’t go deep enough to become a practitioner, and most of the time, the type of things I was doing throughout my life was that of a generalist rather than a specialist, and generalists usually don’t have to go as deep into a topic as a specialist does, hence not applying what I was taught in courses was not a major drawback.

That all changed when I became data specialist cum web developer : all of a sudden I was learning on the job, often being sent on courses when I already knew more than just the basics of the topic. Although even here there were examples of things that never lodged themselves into my head because I never applied them properly. An example of this is the Matlab introductory course I attended in Cambridge : there was never a clear reason to apply the knowledge in anger, and over time I forgot about it, and maybe avoided reacquainting with the subject on later occasions when it could have been a useful tool.

The clearest example of not learning on the course but during subsequent grafting came the adoption of .NET for programming and web development. I attended not one but two courses on .NET and ASP.NET at e-Academy, and absolutely failed to try and apply the concepts on my return at work. I got so desperate at this situation that I requested to be allowed to position myself in an office at Process Control, where I would be in a position to ask someone to have a look at my work while I was trying to transform an ASP page to an ASP.NET one.

This 2-week period during which I was taken off the job and being allowed to learn the subject by doing rather than just being told general concepts finally cracked the mould: the first results were clunky and not particularly pretty, and showed a clear attempt to continue using procedural programming in an object oriented environment, but it was the decisive first step.

Subsequent suggestions for improvements, mostly from Chris Prince, who was my IT guru during this period, made my attempts less awkward, and in the end I started to come up with designs that stood the test of time (meaning that when I looked back on them several years later I did not have to cover my eyes and cringe). Signs that my training period of learning by doing stuff was nearing its end was when I rang Chris for help and his reply became more often than not “you’ll have to ask Mister Google for help, I’m afraid”.

The Importance of a Plan B


This was something that struck me when I attended the “Developing Personal Effectiveness” course in Ashorne Hill. As part of the course there were a set of group exercises, where our group trumped the other group’s efforts most of the time. The difference appeared to be that they had a plan and stuck to their plan through thick and thin, even when it became clear that the plan wasn’t working.

On the other hand, our group sometimes resorted to unorthodox means of achieving the goal when it turned out that our original approach was not getting us anywhere. Not sure if it always was good for group dynamics (which was really what the exercises were supposed to be about), since some people felt that their efforts had been gazumped, since their initial efforts had been dropped in favour of subsequent, more effective efforts without too much of a discussion.

Especially when it came to time constraints, unorthodox methods sometimes cut the time required to get the job done, but an outsider might have frowned about exactly how it was achieved. For instance there was one instance where you had to get from one side to the other side standing on crates, of which you only had three to achieve your goal. The initial approach was for two people to cross using the same set of crates, then one person to return with the crates, followed by two more people making the next crossing.

Effective ? Sort of. Time consuming ? You betcha ! So in the end we had one person throwing the crates from one side of the divide to the other side, meaning that you could have two people crossing without having to return anyone. Clearly, throwing crates had its own risks, but when you’re running out of time, then that’s the least of your worries.

Now if you translate this to a works environment, it goes to show that being task oriented gets results, but could carry the risk of losing the approval of part of your team, or could well lead you to ignore elementary safety rules. But it also highlights the importance of having an alternative plan so that you can switch midstream should your initial plan gets bogged down and does not deliver the expected results.

Otherwise you’re doomed to continue trying to repeat your plan A, trying to perform it to the best of your capability until you get lucky or until you fail utterly. And should your plan A contain a fatal flaw that dooms it to failure, having a plan B as an option is always a good thing.

Ashorne Hill


In the history section of their website, Ashorne Hill describe themselves as the Bletchley Park for the steel industry during its use of coordinating steel production for the war effort. Since then it’s been in the hands of British Steel and its various incarnations and has been a training centre since 1957. I don’t know what its current relationship to Tata Steel is, although my impression is that it’s at least semi-independent.

When I joined British Steel in 1996 it was still common place for people to go to week-long courses there, and that’s what happened to me in my first few months as Team Leader at Tinplate R&D. I can’t really remember the exact content of the course but it was something like a “getting to know the business” type of course. But, as I’ll come to in a later blog, what I can’t apply I tend to forget, and that’s the case with this course.

The next one was a week’s session aimed at improving communication between the technical and the customer side of British Steel Tinplate. What stuck in my head was how Tony Vickers (the Managing Director of British Steel Tinplate) didn’t know who I was, even though by then I had been in the job for more than a year, but did know a number of female graduates who had been in the central office for a mere few months. It made me realise how isolated from the production plants we were in Tinplate R&D as lodgers in Welsh Labs.

The only course I definitely benefited from was the “Improving Personal Effectiveness” course, which happened in two separate weeks, one in October and one in December 1998. This was done in an effort to mend my fraying relationship with my boss David Jones, presumably thinking that if I pulled my socks up, things would get better. I did learn a couple of things about myself, but in the end, David Jones did not change and it was not too much longer before I was seconded to Ebbw Vale.

The last course I attended in Ebbw Vale was during the first year of Corus’ existence, where we attended the Cold Rolling course as part of the Product Development Team from Ebbw Vale. It was notable for the fact that for the first time some Dutch colleagues attended – despite all the facilities they had in IJmuiden, I had the impression it did not include a conference centre like Ashorne Hill.

The course was also notable for for its timing : while we were there on the course, the first set of redundancies in Ebbw Vale were being announced, which made everyone involved feel a bit uneasy, even if we as a team were not one of the victims.

Anyhow, that was the last time I attended a course there, and apart from a short stop-over for a discussion on Single Source (it was a convenient midway point between the South Wales and the north-eastern part of the UK business) I never went there again. My impression is that over time, Ashorne Hill was encouraged to be become more self-sufficient, meaning that it became a training centre for other companies and the attendance by British Steel and its successors became a less dominant source of income.

All I know is that when I attended a Hot Rolling course in 2003, it didn’t take place in Ashorne Hill but in Brookfield Manor near Sheffield. Not sure why, and not even sure whether the changing status of Ashorne Hill versus Corus had anything to do with it, but in the end I don’t think I missed these week-long courses away from home. It may have been novel once or twice, but after the novelty wore off, it was a bit of a drag. Maybe in the end Corus decided that money was better spent on more targeted courses closer to home (although I’m sure that generalised graduate courses were still on the menu).

Corus


For a few months in the summer of 1999 the rumours of a merger with Hoogovens had firmed up and finally the announcement was made that said merger would take place in October. At the time of the announcement no name or logo was as yet available, and the still to be named company was referred to by the ungainly name of “British Steel – Koninklijke Hoogovens” or its acronym BS-KH.

Then came the moment where all was going to be revealed. We sat through a lengthy presentation, which as its final slide displayed the name “Corus” and the following logo:

Corus Logo

I’m sure this was meant to be a climax where we were all supposed to give a standing ovation and clap with unbridled enthusiasm. Instead what transpired was a general feeling of confusion and anticlimax – we just looked at each other and thought “huh?”.

We had been advised that specialist designers had been searching for a suitable name and logo which did not imply a heritage or predominance of either the British Steel or the Koninklijke Hoogovens side. That’s why the colour red was chosen. But why Corus ? Even in those days before Google and Wikipedia a quick internet search already highlighted the existence of a hotel chain and a Chicago bank of the same name (see the link to Wikipedia below1). That question has never been answered to my satisfaction.

It was not long before black humour took over when the synergy promised during the formation of Corus turned out to mean downsizing of a number of plants in South Wales. As part of the Process Development team I was on a Cold Rolling course in Ashorne Hill when the first cuts to Ebbw Vale’s workforce were announced. One presenter drew our attention to the fact that the Corus logo on one of his slides had been cut off:

Cut-off Corus Logo

with the words “As you can see, they’ve cut us out of Corus”. Alternatively the following modification was made to the logo :

Corus Logo Turned

which could be interpreted as someone bending over to receive a spanking.

All in all not an auspicious start to what should have been heady days, but as I’ll explain in a future blog, the match between British Steel and Koninklijke Hoogovens was not the perfect one that had been promised prior to the merger.

In the end we got used to the name and the logo, and settled for one of its lesser known meanings, that of being a second-class god of the northwest wind.


(1) Wikipedia Entry on “Corus”