Flexible working: Anne Roudaut

Flexible working: Anne Roudaut

“Your brain is your main tool: you need to rest it. Having kids has forced me to do less, to rest my brain and so made me more creative and more efficient.”

Dr. Anne Roudaut is an Associate Professor (Reader) in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). She is based in the Department of Computer Science and has been the Head of the Bristol Interaction Group (BIG) since 2018. Within the last 5 years she ranked as the top female publisher for HCI in Europe, and in approximately top ten overall for HCI in Europe.

Anne got her first lecturer position at Bristol in 2015 and has been promoted twice since then, while also receiving a prestigious fellowship, having two children, and advancing the world of HCI. She tells her personal story here.

Tell us about you – where are you from originally, your work, and who you are outside of work?

I am from France. I did a PhD in France then went to Germany for a post-doc for two years before moving to Bristol for another post-doc. I initially came to Bristol for a six-month post-doc and told the then head of group that I was not interested in staying long here. But then I fell in love with Bristol, the British culture and the way the university functions in a different way. There are less barriers to doing what you want to do in research and the university is more research focused. I felt I could do everything, there was more openness here.

BIG was already a successful group and I was shocked to see that there was often nobody in the lab after 5pm (we used to go to the pub at this time!) I’d never seen this in France or Germany, but in Bristol I never have had any comments or funny looks, it’s not weird if you want to leave work and have a life. Here, it’s not about how many hours you’re being seen to do, but about what you produce. This is important for researchers, as we are not counting hours – we want to be doing this work!

Since starting at Bristol in 2014, I have had two maternity leaves, one 7-months long, the other 5 months. My kids are now five and two. In 2014, the chance to apply for a permanent lecturer post came up in Computer Science. I went to the interview when I was 39 weeks pregnant – I was enormous! I can remember giving the talk and gasping for air as the baby was right up on my lungs. The head of department asked me at the end of my interview “would you accept this job if you were offered it?” and I made a joke about “do you think I would be here, like this, if I didn’t want the job?” I got the job but went straight on maternity leave. I felt worried, as I had cultural baggage about doing this, but actually it was great.

Both times, coming back from maternity leave, I had the Returning Carers grant, which is between £7,000–9,000, to allow me to keep up with research when I came back. It helped, especially as I need to buy hardware and other equipment to do my research. It also helped me to travel to programme committee meetings in the US and other places. I also had a Leverhulme fellowship for three years, which was extended to allow for my two maternity leaves.

Before having kids, I was a workaholic, but having had kids I had to change my system and I rarely bring work home. I like playing video games and reading in my spare time…I just enjoy playing with my kids, spending time with them, doing Lego with them – I even bought myself two Lego houses that the kids aren’t allowed to touch!

Tell us how you got here?

Originally, I wanted to be a schoolteacher, then I discovered research and realised I could do both. I did some classes in France on an outreach basis, such as Physics to kids. I like explaining things, hence why I like teaching!

Why do you like your job?

I am driven by research! Basically I want to change the world, it’s not about money for me, else I would be in industry – I have a passion for how digital technologies can support humans. I want to push the research to change our futures. I hope I can make a difference for the next generation and particularly my own kids.

My dream is to time travel and I feel like my work is letting me travel a little bit into the future. Having kids means I can see their future a bit more and the benefits and drawbacks of the use of tech in their future and so I’m passionate about changing that future. I find it amazing how even in the Victorian age people imagined future technologies, such as Skype, they knew we would do it one day. I’d like to be able to see myself as a visionary, I’m working towards that at least.

How do you make it work in terms of work/life balance?

I sometimes arrive at work quite early – like 7:30am – but if I drop the kids to school, I have to battle traffic so will arrive more around 9am. I have to leave at 3.45pm to pick them up from their childcare setup – I now have an official flexible working arrangement to do this – this is to allow for the Bristol traffic plus the fact I live a bit further away. Having a two-year-old and five-year-old means I have to balance this. I also work from home on Friday to capitalize on the fact that I don’t have to drive and can gain sometimes 2 more hours of work.

I’m part of a Facebook group called Track Tenured Mum, which includes women all over the world in academic roles. It’s opened my eyes to the fact the UK is very particular in this area, or maybe Bristol especially, I don’t know. Compared to the US or even other countries in Europe the UK offers a lot of support to mothers.

I’m trying to write a book on techniques on how to be efficient and have a life! I have realised I’ve been giving lots of advice to others on how to manage your time, so you can get things done without feeling guilt and so you’re able to have a work/life balance and hobbies. Having kids chucks a lot of extra complexities into your life, and as an academic you have to self-motivate so you balance it.

How did promotion work?

In 2015 I got my first lecturer position in Computer Science. At the same time, I also got a Leverhulme fellowship, which gave me a lot of leverage as well as the ability to choose how to help the department in a way that could also further my research.

I think I was promoted fast because my research profile is strong but also because I care a lot about my department. For example, in the initial three years of my fellowship I chose to teach despite not having to.

I directed two units: the Interactive Devices and the HCI unit, and I was also behind the introduction of the statistical unit in 1st year. I love teaching. I love engaging with students, plus my units are really fun to teach. I get a lot from it – I get great PhD students by meeting them through these units (3 so far – 2 have gone into industry and come back to do a PhD with me). In the Interactive Devices unit, I make students build a new digital technology and write a scientific paper. And this is just fantastic to see them engage in doing something original and innovative and to see they are, for the most part, accepted to a major conference. This type of lecture is very innovative and I am also very interested in how we can embed new ways of teaching within Higher Education institutions, which is also why I am a Bristol Institute of Learning and Teaching Fellow (BILT).

What next?

HCI is quite a new field, it started in the 1980s when people realised you needed to understand how humans work in order to make the computer/interfaces/devices work better. HCI brings together Experimental Psychology, Interaction Design and Computer Science.

But that was in the 1980s. And for a long time since then, computers have been rectangular and static. Today computers can be the glasses you wear on your eyes, could be embedded in your chair, your walls, you could even wear them – now we cannot just rely on taking off-the-shelf devices and make a better interface for them, we need to build the device from scratch – and with many different form factors. I believe to do that HCI need to encompass more scientific fields such as Material Engineering, Robotics, even Biology and Chemistry.

If you think about how a car is made, there is a rigorous process going from fluid mechanics, simulation in 3D, wind tunnels, manufacturing process. At the end of it we know what the shape of cars is and this should be is informed by rigorous models and tools. If you now make the parallel with digital technology, there is no rigor. The shape of the device is dictated by economic factors rather than shapes that are really adapted to human. So my goal is to reintroduce rigor in the choice of the shape of our digital technologies.

What advice would you give people considering a similar career?

Do this if you have an inner motivation to change the world. Work is nearly a hobby for me and I know I am very lucky about that.

Practically, you have to balance your work and life by becoming an organisation freak – organise your time to focus on that goal.

It was a good thing for me to reduce my flexibility when I had kids, as it helped me get rid of the unwanted tasks and I had to split my time in two, I moved from 70 hours to 35 hours a week, but I increased my productivity by tenfold – which was all down to organisation … when at work, focus on goal, and when out of work – rest your brain. I realised this on maternity leave, which I found hard initially as I love my work and didn’t want to not be at work. But while on maternity leave, I realised that our main tool is our brain. As researchers, our ability to be creative and to think depends on resting your brain– it’s like sport, you can overuse your brain if you over-exercise it. I think being forced to rest and be at home has helped me to recharge my brain and be more creative. It also allows you to escape any negativity and how that affects your brain.

Self-motivation is key for researchers. You need to have the break to think about yourself, your life, to get that motivation. I tell my Phd students to take breaks, recharge their brains, have hobbies, have a life!

Some people say you have to work nights and weekends to be successful in academia (I have heard it a lot!) but I would argue these people don’t get it at all. That’s the worst thing to do if you want to be good in your research and make an actual change. For example, you can spend an entire day trying to debug a program, stay up late unable to find the issue, then you go to bed and sleep, try again in the morning and find the issue in 5 minutes. I think all programmers can relate to this. I think this demonstrates that you need to rest your main tool: your brain.