An Interview with Kate Russell
Kate Russell has been writing about technology, gaming and the Internet since 1995 and now appears weekly on BBC2 and BBC World News, reporting for technology programme Click. A regular expert on the sofa at ITV’s Daybreak and various other TV and radio stations, she writes columns for National Geographic Traveller magazine and Web User magazine. Her first book ‘Working the Cloud’ and companion website workingthecloud.biz is the ultimate collection of online tips, tricks and resources for small businesses, start-ups and entrepreneurs who want to get ahead online. In 2014 Kate published her first fiction novel - a science fiction based (under official license) in the game world of Elite: Dangerous that was funded 400% of its goal on Kickstarter. You can order Elite: Mostly Harmless on Amazon or at the Fantastic Books Publishing online store. The picture you see above was taken by Fashot Studios.
Hey Kate, thanks so much for talking to me today!
Not at all Steve, I am really looking forward to it. You’ll have to excuse my voice as I was at an awards ceremony for the Institute of Engineering and Technology.
Cool, was it good?
Yeah it was lovely. I was compering the event hence why I am a bit croaky today!
No worries! If we start at the beginning. A lot of people might imagine that those operating in the tech world are quite book smart. Were you a good student at school?
[Laughs] I was a horrible student! I was absolutely appalling!
Yes looking back at it now I feel quite bad for the teachers! I was precocious and inquisitive. We’d travelled the world as a family. I’d lived in Central America, Africa, and all over the UK, so I was used to moving from community to community half way through the school year. You figure out how to survive in that type of situation (in other words how to fit in to your new surroundings) and my way was to make people laugh. I didn’t understand education. Teachers would drone on and I just didn’t get why it would be relevant to my life so I left school as soon as I could which was at 17 with hardly any qualifications.
I see. And do you regret that now?
No. My only regret is that I was a student then and not now. When I was at school, back in the mid eighties, we didn’t really have computers. In fact the first I’d really heard of computers was via my brother who went to a local comprehensive school and he got taught computing and so brought that love of computers home with him.
I wondered where the love of computing came in!
Yes my parents actually bought us a BBC Micro in 1984 and then we got a game called Elite and it was at this point that I gained a really keen interest in technology [laughing]. I was really lucky because I got all of this outside of the schooling system. My imagination was allowed to play with the concept of technology and all that it entails. In fact I kind of feel sorry for young people today because they will never know the wonder of not having computers to then having computers. It was such an unbelievable leap. It was like being able to go to the Moon. How is it possible that on this box, on the kitchen table, there is a whole galaxy where you can fly around and have these amazing adventures?
My nephew is five and he’s fluent on the iPad. They’re straight into it these days!
Yeah absolutely and education has come on so much nowadays. Kids are taught by much more effective means rather than just being told to memorise facts that aren’t relevant to their lives. There is much more context in education and with the Internet and computing there are now great interactive resources which means young people can really expand their education in a fun way. Minecraft is a great example. People criticise it as a game that sucks up too much of teenagers’ time and there does have to be a balance – you need to get fresh air too. However, I see my nephew making a working cannon out of things that he dug out of the ground. He worked out how to build it, how to pressurise it and how to get it to fire a projectile out across the field. Now, how anyone can criticise that as being a waste of time I don’t know.
You can’t argue with that!
So yes, I wish I could have been educated in today’s world but I am not at all regretful that I got out of education when I did because it was stifling me.
I think that can be applied to one’s job as well. A lot of people just go through the motions.
I think I read that when you left education you actually moved into a sales environment?
Actually my first 7-8 years of working life I bummed around doing loads of different jobs. I’m not sure I should admit that but oh well [Laughs]. I was an estate agent, a veterinary nurse; I went to America for a year to be a nanny. I came back and worked in pubs and restaurants – I’ve done the lot! The thing with me was that I did a job, I got good at it, but then I got restless as there was no real way for me to progressafter that. I felt I couldn’t apply for any jobs with any real meaning because of my lack of qualifications. So the jobs I was taking were ones that you took when you didn’t really have an idea what you wanted to do in your life.
So I presume then you didn’t have a plan, you didn’t know what it was that you wanted to do?
I wanted to be a writer but I had absolutely no concept that was possible. As far as I was concerned education had written me off, and I had written education off. I figured you can’t be a writer if you can’t be educated. I used to write for myself – poems, short stories and those types of things, and I have done this since I was a child. I remember I used to get annoyed at my parents when I was very young, so I’d go upstairs and scribble a note about how much they’d upset me and then fly it downstairs as a paper aeroplane. But yeah the whole writing thing seemed an impossibility so I wrote that off and just bummed around jumping from job to job.
I then ended up doing sales. Sales is a job that you can do if you’re used to being around lots of different people, which I was from my time of moving around. And it’s a job you can do if you have self confidence – which I had. I even ended up being quite good at sales and ended up working for a floppy disk supplier. So it was kind of in my realm. Before that I’d sold fire extinguishers, faxes and photocopiers…
So floppy disks was a natural progression!
[Laughs] Yes! It was just at the point that CD’s were arriving on the scene and because of my interest in games I encouraged us (the company) to go in the direction of providing turnkey services for manufacturing and distribution to games companies. So through that process over the next five years I got a lot of contacts within the games industry and knew a lot of the major labels as I was providing the disks/CDs to them and distributing their games. But the whole point of sales, especially repeat sales, is just about making as much money as you can.
It’s a bit soulless isn’t it?
It is. It’s very duplicitous in many ways and so I was never really happy in that sense. I was earning a lot of money – I was earning around £70k a year which in the 90s was very good money.
Wow that is good money!
I had a Ford Probe company car [Laughs] which is a very strange car to have and I was living in a nice three-bed house in North London but I just wasn’t happy with what I was doing day to day. I didn’t get up in the morning and go ‘Yay, work today!’
Are you “Yay, work today!” now?
Oh absolutely. I love it. I am pretty much always working now and have to write time in for social, but I do love my job.
I think a lot of people have to write time in for social! I drive my fiancée up the wall I think as I’m always checking analytics!
[Laughs] Yep! Bad isn’t it?!
Very! So when you were aware that you were unhappy with Sales how did you get out of it and into what you’re doing now?
I was sort of drifting along – I knew I was unhappy, but you can make up for that because of the money you are earning and are able to go on nice holidays and buy nice things. But one of my customers saw an advert in a trade magazine where Yorkshire Television were looking for a ‘young and funky female presenter to present a new video games show’ which was going to be on Nickelodeon but ended up on ITV as well. And my customer dared me £50 to phone up and apply. Tim [the man who dared Kate] is a really great guy actually and he thought I’d be good at it. And I think because I was a genuine gamer, which was unusual for a girl, and also because I didn’t really want to be on television held me in good stead. I was essentially going along for a laugh whereas all the other applicants were desperate to be on TV. So I was invited for a screen test and then was offered the job. It was 3 days a month to film the links and that was that. But this is where the turn in my life happened.
It was running for 3 series, for 18 months or so, 3 days a month, all very nice. But I’d always wanted to be a writer. Using my sales skills I saw an opportunity to leverage my public persona and so I wrote some reviews for games that I enjoyed and I sent them along to the magazines that I enjoyed reading. I did this with a cover note essentially saying I am on television, give me a job!
And EMAP Images actually did. It was 1995, and the Games industry was going absolutely ridiculous. The media frenzy within the industry was just crazy! Magazines were cropping up every 5 minutes. Everybody wanted to tell the world about the amazing new concept of home video gaming. And as the consoles were progressing and we were getting smooth graphics and gameplay, the media attention around it was exploding. So EMAP was just setting up a new magazine Maxmium and appointed me as PC Reviews Editor.
That’s amazing! And I am guessing that’s a big drop in money from what you were earning? So it must have been a big risk as well?
Yep! So basically I went from earning £70k a year, with a company car and a 3 bed house in North London to £11k a year, no car and living in a bedsit in Clapham!
Oh my word! That’s mad!
A lot of my friends and family were flabbergasted that I would take such a big drop.
Yeah I bet! A lot of people I know, when they get that kind of reaction from friends and family, would then not go ahead and take that risk. Did you know that this was the right decision for you to take at this stage in your life?
Yes absolutely. It just felt right. I got to the point in sales where I didn’t care about things. It’s funny, when you have a lot of money and you don’t have to worry about it you stop enjoying it. You don’t think about the cost of things when you pick them off of the shelf and it just feels soulless. Going to the extreme opposite end of the spectrum where I’m having to allocate a portion of notes in my purse each week to food and then I’d even add up the cost of food whilst I’m going around the supermarket – it was a dramatic change! But it felt kind of wholesome in a weird way.
“when you have a lot of money and you don’t have to worry about it you stop enjoying it.”
I bet. So when you went to the magazine was that an instant success?
Well the magazine lasted six months, which wasn’t uncommon back then. By then because of my sales and network skills I had been able to build up a good, solid network of contacts within the games and magazine industry. So after the magazine closed down I went freelance – that was 19 years ago, and I’ve been freelancing ever since.
Do you think that working in estate agents, pubs, and leading a bit of a nomadic life in your early twenties contributed to this success you had?
When I was five years old we moved from the UK to go and live in Kenya and that was really the start of all of this. When I was 21, and going through my whole ‘what shall I do?’ phase, I applied to join the police force – I didn’t get in. Part of the application process was to tell them all of your addresses since birth. So I went to my mother to get the details and we went through her diary and we’d actually lived in 23 different addresses in my first 21 years. So right from the get go my life has been integrating rapidly with new communities, especially with schools. It’s really hard but I survived by making myself very adaptable so I could blend in with different cultures and different types of people. So yes I think my early life has played a huge role in where I am today.
That’s really interesting. So you’ve flourished into a really great TV presenter for technology, you host awards, and you’re very well respected within technology. But like you say, you’re extremely confident and outgoing. Do you think someone could do your kind of job if they were a bit more reserved, a bit more shy? You often think of gamers and techies in those terms so I wonder if you’ve risen to the top because of those qualities?
I have met many, many people especially when reporting and presenting different topics, and so many people off-camera are painfully shy. When you socialise with some of these individuals they are very reserved and withdrawn. But when you get them on the topic they know about, and are passionate about, then they come alive. And I think that is true of anyone. You can be shy and still work in television and technology as long as you feel passion for your topic.. If you have a passion, a real love for what you are doing – in any industry – then I think you emit confidence because real passion for a subject and the ability to talk freely and express yourself go hand in hand. The second part is preparation. When I am MC’ing events I will completely over prepare. I will always have a handful of stories that are appropriate for the audience that I know I can go to if anything goes wrong at any point. I will always ensure I know the subject, and the award nominees, off by heart. If I didn’t prepare then I’d be an unconfident wreck!
That’s a good lesson for anyone. My Dad drums that into me! And that preparation probably goes back to your sales days where I imagine the best sales person is the one who knows the product the best.
Yes exactly. But you know what Steve, it is about knowing your audience as well. The awards last night that are quite formal would warrant a different set of stories to a different awards ceremony who may be more of a drunken rabble.
So looking back now – leaving the 70k a year job, living in the bedsit and being poor for a while. Was it all worth it? Do you look back and think I made the right decision.
Oh God yeah. I’m addicted to change and I always have been, right from my days as a child, through all the different jobs. And this career is perfect for me as every day is different. I couldn’t be happier and I’m very lucky that it worked out to be quite financially stable as well.
If we move on to the technology side. There’s been massive changes and advancements in your lifetime and this is an almost impossible question for you to answer…
But I am going to ask it! If you had to pick out a couple of advances that have really changed things would you know those off the top of your head or is that just too hard a question?
Yes that is tough isn’t it?! But the first one would be the introduction of affordable home computing with the introduction of the BBC Micro. That certainly influenced the whole of the rest of my life. For me personally, the coupling of Elite [Elite game] with fiction, because it was the first time you had a proper compelling story line within a game. You had games like Pac-man and Space Invaders but there was no story there. Elite had a proper storyline and came out with a novella called the Dark Wheel and for me that’s where my love of technology and writing was born. So for me that was actually quite seminal. And in fact I have just published a novel that links in to the new version of Elite that’s coming out now! In fact I am running a Twitch TV programme where I’ll be showing my character going on her journey back to her planet.
Then the other thing I think is probably Moore’s Law of the evolution of computing that has allowed computers to be so small but to have so much memory and storage. With this law it meant new consoles were coming out almost yearly and it just made technology so exciting.
Cool! Good choices – you’re braver than I am! So a question I had, which you’ve kind of answered, is if you still retain your love of games or if that love has dwindled as you’ve got older?
I would love my life to be all about games if I’m honest, but unfortunately games require an awful lot of time to be good at and if you like gaming then you don’t want to be bad. So when I do play it takes up way too much time that is inappropriate! And I’m so busy – writing books and playing games don’t mesh well together. So I love, love, love games, but don’t play them anywhere near as often. Having said that I am playing Elite Dangerous and have played through the Alpha and Beta. My book actually came about because two years ago Frontier Development (who make Elite) ran a Kickstarter to raise £1.25million to make the latest iteration of their game. There hadn’t been one for 21 years. As part of their Kickstarter they offered a pledge at £4500 to offer a license to allow you to write a bit of fiction that would then be placed in the game. And your planet and your star system would also appear in the online game. So a bunch of authors pledged at that level and then ran their own Kickstarter to pay for the pledge. So I was one of those and I was signed with four of the others to Fantastic Books Publishing and our books have just come out, and the audio books will be coming out soon.
Yes it is – I’m also very nervous! The game Elite is released on the 16th December and as part of my pledge I got to play the Alpha and the Beta.
Awesome! Is it good?
Oh my God!
It’s been a ride. It was remarkably smooth early on and there’s been a lot of improvements but I LOVE it. So for two weeks over Christmas I have pledged to broadcast me playing (via Twitch) and to show the moment when my character is introduced into the game and her getting back home to her own planet which I have named Slough!
[Laughs] Called it Slough – love that! Will she meet David Brent on route?
Hopefully! That’d be awesome! But yeah it should be fun and I can chat whilst playing and people can come and join me.
Cool, sounds very fun! I guess you just touched upon another massive enhancement and that is crowdfunding – things like Kickstarter – that enable anyone to do anything almost?
Crowdfunding!! That is such a good point. Yes crowdfunding is a huge, huge development. I did a TEDx talk on how crowdfunding is going to revolutionise the entertainment sector. I interviewed the David Braben of Elite and asked him why he was going down the Kickstarter route and not getting a games publisher to do it – they have the track record after all. And he said people in the games companies just care about the money – from things like the title of the games to the very minor points. It’s all about creating big “blockbuster” style games that can be churned out summer after summer. It kills the one off style games – there is no such thing as original invention any more. So we’ve got a great Arts and Gaming scene but they don’t have any money so they can’t create anything like the production value of say a Call of Duty that has so much money behind it. However, we’re getting to the point now where things like Kickstarter allow games to come into being and these games are created by really passionate people who are driven by making the best quality game they can and giving the gamer a really great experience rather than just make a game that is going to make a shed load of cash. And so that puts power into the hands of the potential audience who can now choose the type of game we want as for the first time in a long while there’s beginning to be real variety.
That’s really powerful and it’s definitely leaking into the entertainment industry already. Zach Braff recently funded his film via crowdfunding and like you say, it’s something we’re going to be seeing more of.
Definitely. The biggest threat though to this boom is that it is not that heavily regulated and we’ve yet to see a big high profile case of someone willfully not fulfilling their obligations.
So yes what does happen if say the Elite game didn’t get made despite the funding being secured?
Well this is the thing, the platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo should be making preparations for this. So much in the same way if you order something from a company and they don’t deliver then you should be able to go and get your money back as that company will be chased for their bad debt and brought to account. A couple of really high profile cases could be so damaging to the crowdfunding world, so you’d hope Kickstarter and co would intervene before it ever gets to that situation. Without trust the whole thing falls apart.
Yes exactly. It’s fascinating isn’t it! Just a couple of final questions if I may. Webscape – of all the ones you’ve featured over the years was there an occasion where you were pitched a startup and covered it and thought this will be massive. This will change the world.
No I don’t think so actually. I recently dug out my review of Twitter and I said something like “I can’t quite work out if this is going to be the next amazing thing or a complete and utter waste of time.” It’s weird because everything seems really game changing and innovative when it first lands on my desk. I often look at these sites and think ‘wow, that’s cool.’ Otherwise I wouldn’t put it in Webscape. However for it to be that next big thing a lot of things have to happen. It needs to be marketed really well and it needs to catch the wind at the right moment. A great example is the birth of the home gaming console. The first home gaming console was about four years before the Pong console was bought out and it came out with a tennis game but it just didn’t catch on. Atari bought out the Pong console, partnered with Seer’s over Christmas so it got pride of place at the busiest time of the year. The combination of clever marketing and the right time for humanity to catch on to it meant they flew off the shelf, and most consider that to be the first home gaming console.
That’s amazing isn’t it. Right place, right time. If I was to put you in charge of your favourite startup what would you change? For example if I put you in charge of Facebook…
Oh God don’t do that!
I just wouldn’t want that responsibility. I enjoy using the site and their services but that level of responsibility is scary.
So have you got a favourite site?
Not a favourite site as such but I have a real love of social media. It’s given me so many opportunities. I do some lecturing in media studies and one of the things I tell my students is that your social following is like a currency in today’s world. It’s such a great way to get feedback so you can improve and generally people are pretty generous in spirit. Some people are idiots but that’s true of any walk of life.
“your social following is like a currency in today’s world”
Talking of that odd idiot – is trolling and blocking trolls something we need to get a handle on?
I feel really awkward about the whole troll thing. I don’t get trolls and I genuinely think that’s because I don’t respond. As soon as you block or call them out you are giving them that attention – they’ve provoked a reaction. If you block them then they’ll just create a new account to troll you with. I wish before people complain about all the negative experiences that they would balance that out with all the positive experiences they have. The majority of people on social media are very helpful, very kind and all round just decent people – same as humanity. But a few bad eggs seem to get all the attention and then dominate the news, which is so wrong I think.
Yes I totally agree with that. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do with ZIDILIFE – give a place for people to go to actually read all these inspiring, great stories of good people rather than just be consumed by all the negative and bad stories, of the bad people that we seem to be fed by the news each day.
Exactly, and that’s one of the appealing things about a site like yours. The internet has been criticised for giving a level of anonymity to these “bad” individuals, or trolls. In fact I was on a radio show a couple of years ago with the MP John Carr. This was just after April Jones was tragically murdered and it had been revealed that Mark Bridger had been conducting searches through Google for indecent images of 5 year old girls. The government advisor for child safety online, John Carr, got onto this bandwagon and said, “I recommend that it become compulsory for search companies and ISP’s to censor certain words and certain content.” I was very against this because of violation of our privacy rights, and it goes against a free and open internet. I didn’t think it would stop bad people, but instead it would just annoy good people. Computer algorithms can’t be sensitive to know the nuances of human conversation and we’re experiencing that now as that bill went through, and in the UK we are inundated with complaints. Especially with T Mobile it seems, and it’s a nightmare to turn off and you can’t even turn it off fully. People are being blocked from perfectly innocent websites and so it’s very frustrating. But anyway, I was on a radio show and was discussing this with John Carr and I was saying that the Government shouldn’t spend a lot of money on giving parents, who don’t understand technology, a false sense of security that their children are now safe online because the internet is being filtered. The government spend a s*** load of money implementing that and the die hard abusers will find different ways to get around it, and everyone else’s experience will be impacted. And because I was taking this stance I had people ringing into the radio show saying that I was sympathising with these abusers and that I was this disgusting person. And even John Carr said, “you seem to know an awful lot about how a paedophile thinks.” No joke!
What a ridiculous comment.
People fear what they don’t understand and unfortunately when you fear something you tend to be very vocal about it and the Internet gives them that platform to be vocal. And so I think these individuals can be as damaging as the trolls in their own way. I just think people need to apply the principles and morals of humanity to the Internet but we just haven’t quite got to the point where we operate on the Internet as we do in the real world.
That’s really interesting. Like you say if someone wants to do something bad, they will do it.
And the more people who shout at the Government to sort these things out the more freedom and privacy they give away. People need to take responsibilities for their selves and their own communities. It’s not all down to government – we all need to take responsibility for this.
So I imagine Edward Snowden is a bit of a hero to you?
Yes definitely, he was very brave. I’ve seen the movie they made, which was very surreal. It’s not out yet but they made this two hour film, documentary style, using the actual footage of Snowden and Greenwald, and then the female reporter who put it together. It kind of felt like they were actors – it was very surreal.
Mistakes were made along the way but I really think Snowden didn’t have his own interests at heart and just saw something he felt was very, very wrong and felt compelled to speak up about it which was very heroic.
So the final question is how we can get our readers involved in what you’re doing?
There are a couple of things. They can definitely join me on Twitch.tv/kateclick for Elite over Christmas which should be really fun. I think if you want to work in technology and you don’t know how to get into it, or you want your kids to get involved, then I would really recommend learning how to code. You can do this very simply. Go to http://yearofcode.org where the BBC is working in conjunction with a couple of other organisations, and they’ve put together a series of simple tutorials that take you from the very word go and require very little in the way of time. Having a very basic understanding of how code works I think would be hugely beneficial in all sorts of way.
Kate it’s been brilliant to chat! Really appreciate your time and it’s been great to get to know you!
Likewise Steve, I really enjoyed it and I look forward to seeing it all written up!