Hi, my name is Ashley Frieze, and I am a Software Engineering Manager at Elsevier, a publishing and digital media company, most known for scientific journals and books. I lead Agile software teams as part of in-house software development, and I specialise in Java for the integration of Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing applications. I have always been a computer nerd. I did not choose a career in Software Engineering so much as not do anything to stop it happening.
I was brought up in Leeds in the North of England and went to university (Computing Science, obviously) up in Newcastle, where I stayed and took my first job at a start-up specialising in Life Science image analysis. I ended up moving around the country for non-career reasons, like being closer to a girlfriend or starting a family. These tend to be pretty important reasons in themselves. I now live in the picturesque Cotswolds where people usually come for holidays, but we just ignore them and go to the local supermarket or garden centre as normal people might.
I have been lucky to be able to mix stand-up comedy and IT over the past 14 years. A lot of my material is about songs and song writing, but mostly I try to work backward from funny phrases or ideas that occurred to me. There is never a specific theme to my set. Before we had children, I could be found gigging two or three times a week. With the advent of parenthood and, perhaps more influentially, my forties, I am out and about less frequently. However, 2017 sees me returning to the musical theatre stage as part of The Cotswold Savoyards.
I first had a crack at stand-up while I was still in university. Someone was organising a comedy competition and people around me said, “you’d be good at this.” I decided not to argue with them. I have been cracking jokes uncontrollably since I was a kid, so this seemed like a decent way to harness that affliction and turn it into something useful. My first set was mainly cobbled together bits of jokes or routines that I had heard and liked. However, since I joined the real stand-up circuit, I have always written my own material.
American comic Sarah Silverman described how admitting you are a comedian is similar to coming out. It is something you either are or are not. After I had a taste of it at university, I always assumed I would end up performing professionally. I even went to the Edinburgh Festival in 1995 and came away thinking I would be there the following year with my own one hour show… then I promptly forgot to follow up on this until 2003 when I found the route into the UK stand-up scene. I gave myself the kick I needed to start my own stand-up career after a long-term relationship had ended. I suddenly found myself asking what it was I actually did with my time outside of work. It was time to actually have a go at being that thing I always assumed I would become.
If I did not have stand-up, I would probably get more stressed at work. Similarly, if I was not used to the challenges of making a room full of people laugh, some of the more difficult moments at the office might be less easy to master. As I am comfortable presenting to a much more hostile crowd with higher expectations, leading big presentations in my day job is a lot easier for me than for most others. As someone who can handle a drunken heckler, the occasional bit of disruption in a meeting is easily dealt with. I am a lot kinder at work than I am on stage, mind you.
I am proud to say that there is no IT in my stand-up, but that is only partially true. As a comic, people assume you are too stupid to get a proper job. I generally play along with that stereotype, secretly knowing more than I let on in order to steer things towards a joke or a funny moment. Occasionally, I let the mask slip.
One time, at a small comedy night I used to run, where quite a few of the audience were friends of the family, I was MCing and asked a chap in the front row what he did for a living. “I.T.” he said rather cryptically. “Oh really, what sort?” I asked. “Information. Technology.” he replied patronisingly. “OK. What sort of information technology do you do?” I continued. “You wouldn’t understand,” he said dismissively. At this point the entire back row of the gig leaned forward in their seats, knowing full well that I would. “Just try me,” I continued, “assume I’ve been online or something. What do you do?” He looked at me as if he had won and said, “Server Virtualization,” I paused. “You mean like Citrix?” The crowd went wild. “That’s desktop virtualization,” he pointed out. “Okay, then, VMware,” I suggested. He nodded and backed down.
Above: Ashley’s Album on Itunes
No matter what you do you need a lot of practice before you master it. I am a firm believer in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours (or thereabouts). My first few gigs were pretty poorly received, though I was not entirely aware of it at the time. What is worse than being shouted at or booed is being left to your own devices going through a set that is not that funny. I definitely did a lot of that in the early days. You suddenly realise what you have been doing wrong when you get your first big proper laugh. Then you understand how little of your set is good enough to generate that and you have to work harder on it.
I think technical work and comedy work share a few things in common. If you boil it down to the creative process, you are trying to shape an idea into the tightest and most articulate form in which it can be expressed. Optimising a comic song for punch lines or rhyme or even syllables is similar to refining or refactoring some code. There are loads of ways it could be done, and there is even a chance that it should NOT be done, but with the right attitude to work, rework, and humbly handle the feedback, then you can get something that is really good.
Those people who make something outside of their profession probably have a more rounded sense of creativity. The more different ways you can express yourself, the better you are at each, in my view. That being said, I think there is a challenge in being known professionally for more than one thing. Would the comedy community take an IT professional as seriously as one of their own? Would the IT community take a comedian seriously in an IT setting? I think that is the biggest challenge of trying to be more than one thing – being comfortable as being labelled as all of those things.
I believe you can either DO comedy or you can BE a comedian. At the start of getting into it, there is probably only the doing of it on your mind. You have to find gigs, write material, rehearse it, and try it out in front of an audience. After a few gigs, which are hard work, usually underwhelming, and plagued with all manner of stresses, you have to decide if it is really your thing. At that point, you may decide to BECOME a comedian. And that is it really. From now on everything you create is a potential new bit, and every time you see a funny thing you see it as a practitioner; you are no longer the same person.
Funnily enough, I feel the same way about software development. When I hire developers, I look for someone who IS a developer, not who DOES development.