Role-holder interview: Russ Humphrey

photograph of russ humphrey

Russ loves his job and says "he is a person who takes opportunities spontaneously"

  • Russ has been at Brookes for 15.5 years.
  • Russ now holds the post of IT and AV Support Manager in OBIS. His role at the time of this case story was Audio Visual Manager within the Directorate of Learning Resources.

Employment history

  • IT and AV Support Manager, Jun 11 - to present)
  • Audio Visual Manager (Mar 09 - May 11)
  • IT Technician, Psychology and SSL  (Oct 04 - Mar 09)
  • Psychology Technician (2 Nov 98 - Oct 04)
  • AV Technician (Oct 95 - Nov 98)

RH: As AV Manager I manage a team of around 10 staff based over 3 campuses. We are primarily responsible for the audiovisual infrastructure in pooled teaching rooms, dataprojectors, pcs, overhead projectors. Traditional AV moving on to more modern stuff. We also operate a video production service where we can produce professional quality videos, multi-media presentations and what have you. We produce lots of videos for inclusion on Brookes’ wesbites. We also offer a loan service for students, so if a student needs to borrow a digital SLR camera we offer that service as well. My duties as manager include looking into the policy of A and V for the future as sponsor for the new library building. So I have direct input on the future of A and V within that building as well as other new technologies as well.

Q: What about the route to this job, the story of how you got where you are now?

RH: It might be worth including why I actually came to Brookes. I worked as an audio visual technician in the private sector and really hated the job, it was very unpleasant. A couple of jobs turned up in the Oxford Mail or Times, both at Brookes, one on a Tuesday (the AV technician one) and one on a Thursday (for a photography technician in Biological and Molecular Sciences). I turned up to the one on the Tuesday and had the interview. it was quite a nice interview, quite laid back and informal, had lunch and everything as well, went through the process, had a phone call that evening and I was offered the post of Audio Visual Technician at Brookes. There and then I accepted the job and didn’t go for the interview on Thursday. When I actually came in and saw the technology, you have to know dataprojectors didn’t really exist, it was all overhead projectors and lots of screwdrivers. I stayed in that post for 2 or 3 years. At that time digital technologies and computers had just started to come in and we had one crystal display unit that would get booked out about 2 or 3 times a week. By the time I left we had dataprojectors and things weren’t fixed in rooms because there wasn’t the need for that.

Then a job for Psychology Technician came up. It was only in the office next door. I went to the interview because it looked quite interesting and I was drawn to the job because AV was good but I felt I was stagnating and there was this new opportunity to get more experience, with the word “computing” in the job description. I’d not been involved with “computing” before, so I looked at this post and sure it said computing and Psychology also had it’s own Computing Technician. I started to pick up some new ideas and it was great working in a more student focused environment and the skills I’d picked up in AV really helped. It was mainly the IT side that attracted me.

I was in that post for a few years, it was a great post and it was so diverse. I’d have to be making cardboard models of garden sheds for some form of psychological testing, then we’d be interfacing Skinner Boxes with computers and extracting the data. There were lots of students and great people to work with.

The IT side has taken a much more prevalent role within Psychology than when I joined. When I joined there was a lot of brass and mahogany “hardware” for experiments. I used to make some of those things and then there was a very rapid move into IT accompanied by a restructure. For one reason or another, that job disappeared, and then I had the opportunity to change  to a full-time IT Technician with a little bit of AV, and so I became an IT Technician. (As a digression from this, at the same time I was applying for  job in hardware support, but I didn’t get that job because I didn’t have the relevant experience in IT. I didn’t tick the boxes and I think Brookes had about 80 applicants for that one.) So, I finally got a job in IT and that was great.

I had brilliant line-management support here and DE was really great. And I got brilliant support from the team as well because I’d got in early on a new type of post and I was able to develop the way IT was moving in Psychology, picking up new skills all the time and networking with people.

Q: What sort of skills?

RH: Everything to do with It really. I went in with basic computer skills and came out knowing what an IP address was, what a Mac address was, how to network computers, how to repair and build computers, a whole lot of other deployment skills, ghosting, where you can create one master image on your computer and deploy it to a number (50 it was) of computers. This means that rather than visit 50 computers separately, I could rebuild the software for 50 computers at the same time. I knew nothing about this before.

At the same time, while I was looking after hardware, the role in the Psychology dept involved me in creating quite a lot of digital content for use in lectures, so this could be turning video clips or video tapes into a form that could be used in PowerPoints, making it ready for use in teaching environments. We had a lecturer who wasn’t computer literate at all but she had some wonderful examples from television. She was a social psychologist and she wanted to use excerpts from comedy programmes to highlight social interaction points, the students would love examples like that.

Then an interesting project came along, the Psychology Dept specialises in child development and they set up a BabyLab. It was down to me because I had prior experience in videomaking, and they needed a BabyLab designer and I was able to liaise with experts from other universities who had done similar projects. I went out and visited and observed in other universities, and looked at existing BabyLab type technology and I designed, and the team designed, the BabyLab. The design had a remote controlled camera and sound recording system and we recorded data digitally from digital tape onto a hard drive. There was special software to analyse the data. So even though I was in this IT role, I was doing a lot of video work and running a studio in a way and it was a really great job, it was called IT Technician but there was so much to it.

So, as Psychology Technician I’d help students out and I’d help teachers out. A student would come in wanting help manipulating a digital image or editing a video so I’d show them how to do that. So, a little bit of training of students to do videos, to use the BabyLab technology, really enabling people to express themselves. The lecturer I mentioned used to get really good feedback about putting the clips into the lectures because it was fun. We all know that 2 hours of text or screen is bad but if you jolly it up with a bit of video and getting it all into one PowerPoint, it was all contained within the one presentation.

Q: Learning support was an added dimension to your job description?

RH: I suppose if I go back to leaving school I was in line to become a photographer. I went to a college and just decided there and then to do photography and as part of the course, it was 35mm slides in those days I had to make a video, well a cine film It was that whole idea of 50 minutes talking, well people get bored. So teaching methods change, but all those things are in my background.

This job, it’s job number 3 and I was in it quite a long time. Everything, the pay, was fine but i just got feeling that maybe I could do a bit better, and I had kept in close contact with the AV office, which was only next door, and they originally advertised for the AV post and I didn’t apply for it the first time round.

I was particularly keen on how the job description was written, but anyway, they didn’t appoint that time, so they advertised it again and I ummm’d and aaagh’d but at the last moment I decided to go for it. There was no increase in money bizarrely enough, and I thought it looked like a challenge. AV had gone for over a year without a manager, they had a few temps going in who I actually knew very well, and, like I say, I came from a photographic/audiovisual background anyway and I just thought it would be a challenge, and it might be a chance, if I can get into this post, to actually move my career in a managerial direction. When you get to a certain point in your life and I’ve never had any aspirations to be a manager, you start thinking you can do a bit more, and I can actually make improvements in this department.

Q: So you could use the manager position to think about doing some of the things you wanted to anyway?

RH: Yes, I used to take an active interest in this department and people would come next door and ask my opinion on things, so I went for the interview and did a lot of preparation. I’m one of those people who leaves everything to the last minute usually, I’m terrible for that, so I applied for it over Christmas and it all had to be in for January. So I did a lot of reading, rewrote the application form, pooled all my experience from working in Psychology and what I was currently doing. It’s an incredible challenge, I thought, and well even when I sat outside of AV there was one crisis after another and I thought, in this day and age, that AV always sat more comfortably within Computer Services. It wasn’t the opinion of my line manager, understandably, but before I got into the post I started informal communications with the manager of Computer Services and realised we had a similar view of the future of Audio Visual.

Coming into the manager post I joined a couple of groups, the Learning and Manager’s Teaching Space Group and SCOMS (Standing Committee for Heads of Media Services). They have conferences as well so, putting postings on these groups and monitoring the way AV was going in the wider HE sector, AV was moving from a facilities-based arm into IT, all of AV had completely changed in the last 10 years. Gone are the slide projectors and it’s all about interconnectivity, multi-media presentations, all over the internet and so on, but I tell you one thing though: over a period of year's we put a case study together and did a presentation to senior managers in EFM and Computer Services and they were finally convinced where AV sat.

So, as of Christmas 2010 we moved across to Computer Services and now they’ve just started their major restructure with OBIS but out of that (and we can’t count chickens) there may be benefits because it may be that certainly members of the AV team may be on a better grade and it WILL be beneficial to the University in the long run.

Q: So that’ll give you more access to doing strategy?

RH: Yes, and what is good is, well, in the past, when you went to a classroom and a computer went wrong, you’d phone Computer Services, and if the AV kit goes wrong, you’d phone AV. But now, it’s all In the same room and one phone call now activates the whole response. We in AV move queries quickly to the technical team, and the end user’ll see a far better service, more focused, hopefully to what you’re looking for, you just want the kit to work. it’s got to work. Many problems we’ve had in the past are to do with the IT side of things, it’s not IT’s fault, but if a computer doesn’t work and it’s a network issue, that used to be outside of AV but now it’s all together and communication with guys from hardware and network support, and software imaging is all linked up. It makes a lot of sense. That’s the general move across the HE sector.

Q: What sort of training experiences have been significant to you?

RH: The majority of my development has been on-the-job learning. The beauty of Brookes is that there a lot of people around who it is OK to email and ask, there’re always people around here willing to show you how to do things, so long as they’re not too busy. I respect that and that’s how I’ve done most of my learning so ghosting of software was definitely like that. I want to get the image across 20 or 30 computers – how do I do it? Well, AF in Computer Services knows a programme, it works well but it’s limited, so we add a bit of internet and an initial tip-off leads to something new. I have a conversation in a school with someone who has a similar problem, and we solve it in the same way, there’s a lot of that, picking up things on the corridor.

So in the case of say BabyLab. There weren’t many people at Brookes who’d done something like it but a Professor of Psychology worked with a technician at Oxford University and they already had a Child Development Lab, so we got in the car, went over, spent the day and, well, had a look! We got ideas about the work, spoke to some experts and to suppliers and we came to this design and then we got ideas from the people who wanted to use it and came to a final design.

Q: So, you were enabled to leverage personal relationships and trusted to do networking?

RH: Yes, it was far more about that than academic know-how. There is not a huge amount of IT “tradition” out there and everything is moving so fast and formal courses are not overly related to actual needs that I had at that time. Actually, I don’t think I’ve done any formal qualifications except the CMLP (Core Leadership and Management programme) and some stuff like Health and Safety and fire marshalling – mandatory stuff.

Q: Is CMLP helping?

RH: Incredibly useful. Yes, incredibly because while I think I’ve got skills and I have no issues with technical stuff I have no management background and just came in the post using common sense. You know, about treating people how you’d like to be treated yourself.

I intended to do CMLP last year but didn’t have time. But this year I thought I had to go for it. It’s far more useful than I envisaged, including areas that I thought would be a waste of time to be honest. Like, even this morning – MBTI. I’ve been in Psychology departments and had seen it and had been sceptical, wondering really, well, how accurate can those questionnaires be? How could the outcomes from it benefit your manager role? So I went in with an open mind and a very open mind. I thought it’s going to be like your stars and you’d get a lot of ambiguous sentences, Capricorn or something. It was completely different. For a start I was surprised, the letters are quite true, once you identify your personality, recognising the less strong areas, that is really important. I chat too much and I recognised the problem I might pose to Introverts. Very useful.  And with the Time Management one, I go in thinking, well (well, I’ve got an open mind), this has got to be useful form the outset. When I’ll get round to implementing it I don’t know, but it was incredibly useful. My timekeeping’s useless and there were lots of really good strategies. It all ties in with MBTI. I’m a “P”, leave all the doors open till the last minute.

At school, I didn’t know what I wanted and certainly I didn’t think of Audio Visual Manager. Engineer maybe, and I went from one field to another and didn’t know, and then a door opens and you look through it, and you find it’s alright.

I saw myself as a “making” type, really, sitting there making things with my hands and I did do that as a technician and in Psychology and now I don’t do that and I quite like being a manager now. Managing is a different sort of challenge.

Q: Any moments that are particularly significant in your thinking about your career?

RH: I suppose when I was in Psychology I sat there dealing with students and the same question came to me over and over, “do I really want to be doing this in 30 years time?” So I thought this is the time to go back to AV, maybe it’s the management role. I got to 40 and thought, “do students want to deal with their dad?” I got on well with students but was worried if it’d work so well as I got older. It wasn’t a major eureka moment, but it was one thing that led me to the “let’s change” moment.

I never looked for these posts, and being a “P” I went with the flow, and didn’t look for them. Just a temporary job came up at Brookes, so I checked it out and now I’m doing my management career.

Q: So you couldn’t have predicted any of this at the beginning?

RH: Well, yes. I did want a career and what I realised was that I wasn’t going to be an astronaut or a fighter pilot. Even leaving college I was studying engineering but went on a work placement. The placement was photography and not connected, and I really liked photography. Then I was supposed to go back to engineering at college but the photographer offered me a job, so I stayed as a photographer and was on the video/photography route for 10 years. I was made redundant, then moved around a bit. Things turned up, and that’s how it went all the way through. I’ve not known what I wanted to do and I’ll probably make up my mind the day before my retirement.

Q: On reviewing it all, does it all add up and make sense and has it added up to a specific set of skills that fit a role and career?

RH:  Yes, I’ve been happy with what I’ve been doing and Brookes has been a great place because of all those people, all that diversity.

Q: Any words of wisdom?

RH: I haven’t gone down a defined path and building from that Brookes has been a great place for exploring options, it wasn’t that I had a goal form the beginning and chased it.

Q: You have to work on getting goals. What’s been of most value to date?

RH: You make contacts, such a wealth of experience and you can always tap into it and get a problem answered. I came with zero IT skills and now I have very good ones. I think I’ve got on with people and I came here quite a shy person but I’ve developed the ability to get on with people. I’m an extravert on MBTI but 10 years ago I couldn’t have envisaged myself chairing meetings, but I now do it as a matter of course. CMLP has supported me a lot with interpersonal skills. I was quiet when I started and now I’ll join in, and I like Brookes’ values, diversity, non-judgemental, it’s a place where ideas are appreciated.


Last update 17 April 2011