Hey Girlfriend!: Jem Turner

It’s the first Hey Girlfriend! interview of the year and I’m really keen to be sharing this one! Last year I really strived to include women from a range of backgrounds and locations, and I managed that. Although I covered different age groups I felt I was missing someone with at least a couple of decades of experience to speak from. And I don’t just mean working in tech, either – I mean years of life experience. So this month I am interviewing Jem Turner, a freelance WordPress developer based in Shropshire in the UK.

Jem chilling out on a beanbag.

Jem Turner began coding as a teenager in the 1990s, but her competitive PHP skills led her to develop many scripts, including her secure mail form, Jem’s Mail Form – which is highly rated, and used by individuals, and small and large businesses alike, all over the world.

Jem is also a mother of two beautiful children, and recently got married to the love of her life. But not everything came easy for this party-loving, mentally strong, weightlifting & martial arts enthusiast, who experienced constant abuse and bullying throughout her younger years. She’s had her fair share of online drama too, and we haven’t always been on the same page either! Now, with years of not only technological experience, but life experience, I ask Jem about the landscape of technology then and now, how the internet has become a big part of her life, and how she’s grown over the decades she’s been involved in tech.

Hi Jem! Thank you so much for doing this interview. My very first question to you is about your time as a freelancer. With at least fifteen years of experience coding, how many years exactly have you spent freelancing, and what are some of the high-level pros and cons?

Hi! No – thank you. I love a good excuse to talk about myself ;)

I’ve been freelancing for nearly 6 years now, having launched myself head first into the world of self-employment when my son was only two weeks old. I returned to full time work when my son was around 2 – 3 years old for roughly 12 months, although carried on freelancing throughout – effectively working two jobs so that I’d be financially secure enough to take on a mortgage with two kids.

For me, the pros of freelancing are very much centered around my children. I am able to walk them to school most mornings and I’m there to pick them up. I have more flexibility to work around any sudden illnesses and can more easily make time for school performances and plays.

Most cons are financial – although I’m regularly lucky enough to have my workload scheduled months in advance, I can’t always guarantee that clients will pay on time or that cheques will clear in a timely manner. It can be incredibly stressful knowing you have children to feed when you’re sat in your overdraft for the hundredth time in a month. Consistent, regular pay from a full time job would fix this, but would crush my soul!

You are a PHP/WordPress developer and have been for most of your career. Is this what you found you were passionate about and enjoyed, something you thought would “get you somewhere”, or a bit of both?

PHP always was, and remains to this day, just something I enjoy tinkering with. Even after all this time I struggle to believe that I am lucky enough to be able to make a living with my hobby. I have often wondered if I’d have progressed even further if I had the ambition to “get somewhere” but I’m perfectly content as is.

With your skills, you created your Bella~ scripts – BellaBook (a guestbook), BellaBuffs (a fanlisting management script) and BellaBuzz (an ask & answer/Q&A script), to name a few – as well as NinjaLinks (a web directory script). These have been dowloaded hundreds and hundreds of times, used by many different people. Did you anticipate they would get much attention?

Not just hundreds – BellaBook is used on hundreds of thousands of websites worldwide, because of its availability (next to WordPress, phpBB etc!) on the scriptaculous software library. I never anticipated this kind of reach; each script was created to fill a gap, primarily for my own personal use. They each replaced an insecure or broken script which I “needed” at the time, but didn’t want to risk getting my website hacked to use. These days they have been somewhat abandoned due to personal time constraints, but each still has a loyal following.

Jem’s Mail Form is a simple-to-use PHP mail form that you created, which is customisable, and infinitely more secure than any other PHP mail form available. In the early years of working on it, did you notice that there was a lack of this kind of resource online? How did creating it come about?

There were and still are absolutely hundreds of mail form scripts available, but as with my other scripts my mail form was created to ‘fill a gap’. Unfortunately, the vast majority of publically available mail form scripts have major problems… either they are susceptible to spam, or not customiseable, or require lots of additional modules and add-ons which makes them complex to use. The script I originally used that inspired me to write JMF was so insecure that it could be manipulated to inject email addresses into the mail headers, basically allowing a spammer to use the form to spam thousands of people with each submission – obviously I had to replace it!

You were involved in a lot of online communities and forums, such as The Quilting Bee, The Fanlistings Network, Girls Who Geek Forum, to name a few. You also had TutorialTastic, a website with tutorials that explained some of the very basics of coding, through to more advanced topics. How do you think the landscape of community has changed with the rise of social media and meetup groups? How would you say “the old” compares with “the new”?

Social media has made it incredibly difficult for some of these niche communities to survive. Facebook and similar networks give a great central point of contact and suck up a lot of time – this makes it difficult for a separate site, with a separate login and a potential alien “not facebook” UX to compete. The vast majority of the ‘old school’ communities that I were involved in now operate via Facebook groups. This is fine for keeping in touch but loses the uniqueness of the community that made each one what it was.

I don’t know, maybe I’m too old to be “in the know” about badly pulled together web forums and the niche micro sites and personal web pages that these communities are built up around?

You’ve been blogging for a long time and – dare I say it! – famous for being opinionated, and doing things like the Pants Awards, which caused some people to be taken aback (ah, myself included). You and I also butted heads once or twice because we didn’t agree with each other. 😛 These days, women are often judged for expressing their opinions, but looking back, did that kind of confidence in your opinions come naturally for you? And what do you think about it in light of the way women in tech are treated today?

I’ve always been loud-mouthed and opinionated, and I probably get it from my mother (who is much the same). It was only natural that this should translate to the web. However, in hindsight I believe a lot of my more “forceful” opinions and exploits in web drama boil down to an outward attempt at control, which my personal life was so sadly lacking. While I don’t regret “having an opinion”, in hindsight I could have achieved so much more as a young female coder with both my knowledge and my reach, and I do regret not seeing that at the time.

In the early days, a lot of my opinion pieces were dismissed because of my age rather than my gender, although it wasn’t until later on that I realised that’s partly because in many parts of the world “Jem” is a guy’s name and so many assumed I was a man anyway.

One of the advantages of being a freelancer is that gender feels like less of a barrier and it’s very rare I feel like I’m being overlooked or mistreated based on the fact I’m a woman. Unfortunately it also means I’m out of the loop on how it genuinely is to “be a woman in tech” beyond twitter micro-stories, and therefore can’t truly comment on this.

You used a slogan on your website: “ultimately better than you”. It stuck for a long time. Typically people think of a slogan and then they grow out of it. How did you come up with yours?

I can’t remember the exact circumstances of it but I’m 99% sure it was suggested by a reader in jest, and as you say, it stuck. I do still use it occasionally and it still provokes some passionate reactions from people who think I’m being serious.

The “mommy blogger” stereotype is a pretty well-known one, and you challenge it (albeit in jest sometimes). You have two wonderful children, whose privacy you protected and respected especially when they were much younger – you avoided showing photos of their faces online, or censored them. Not everyone does this, of course, and many expecting mothers even like to document the progress of their pregnancy. What are your personal decisions on writing about parenthood and how has this changed over time?

My protection of my children is not so much because of my personal choices, but because of my paranoid ex partner (the children’s father). I wasn’t even allowed to use any pictures of myself online lest someone should recognise me and… well, I don’t know what the justification was! Anyway, I have mostly stuck with this for the kids because I do believe they should have a say about what information is available online, especially in a time where potential employers, colleges, etc are so quick to google what people have been up to. I do invite my children to have a say about e.g. photos posted to instagram where we’ve recently been more open, but I’m not sure they fully understand the consequences anyway.

I would have liked to have shared more when the children were little and took up so much of my time and my identity! My whole life turned upside down when I became pregnant with my eldest and my usual outlet was lost to me. I can see why new mothers in particular write so much about their pregnancies and the early lives of their children. While I don’t think blogging about childhood is too different to my mother’s generation gossiping about their kids to neighbour’s over the back fence, the permanance of these blog posts is somewhat scary and I do think some people should exercise caution in how and what they share.

You’re involved in a boycott of Nestle. Tell us why, and why this is something you feel really strongly about.

I’ve known about some of Nestlé’s inethical “marketing techniques” since I was a child, but it wasn’t until I was breastfeeding my daughter that the true impact hit me. I came across a photograph taken by a photographer for UNICEF in a Children’s Hospital in Islamabad, Pakistan. The subject of the photo is a woman with two infants in her lap. One infant was at the breast, looking healthy and well fed. The second infant looked significantly smaller and was in a horrific state with protruding bones and saggy skin. It turned out that the infants were twins, but the mother had been incorrectly told that it wouldn’t be possible to breast feed both children and so the daughter (this in itself a symptom of endemic sexism) was bottle fed. The daughter became sick through the a cycle of diarrhoea and malnutrition that can result from unsafe bottle feeding and died the day after the picture was taken. Nestlé contributes to the unnecessary death and suffering of infants around the world – such as the little girl pictured – by aggressively marketing baby foods in breach of legally recognised international standards.

As well as this, Nestlé has been outed by Greenpeace for its use of palm oil from companies that are destroying Indonesian rainforests, they have been criticised over links to child labor in cacao plantations, and more recently have been in the news for pumping water in areas of the United States suffering from severe droughts. Further, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, a former chairman and CEO of Nestlé once called the idea that water is a human right “extreme.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t find having access to drinkable water that extreme, personally…

As a parent, what are your views on children and exposing them to, or teaching them about, technology?

This is something I really struggle with. On one hand, I recognise and see from my own experience that early access to technology is a huge factor in competence and proficiency. Competence with technology is undoubtedly important now. On the other hand, I am very much an advocate of children getting off their bums and outside in the fresh air. Obviously there’s a happy medium – no child is likely to spend 100% of their time attached to technology, nor would it be appropriate to lock my children in the garden for hours at a time (however tempting sometimes) but I am yet to figure out what exactly is “right” for us.

Many years ago, you broke it off with the father of your children and partner of 12 years. I understand it probably got easier over time, but given the circumstances, just how hard was it to go through with it?

I’d been convinced through years of gaslighting and outright bullshit that I was broken, that I wouldn’t manage – couldn’t cope. I was scared that I would fail financially and emotionally. However, the actual split itself – when I told him to leave – was probably the easiest part. It was a long time coming, which I guess mentally prepares you. There came a point where I was at rock bottom, and I guess once you’re there it can’t get much worse.

You met someone who completely respected you, loved you just as you were, is your best friend, and makes you feel complete. You never really thought marriage was on the cards for you, but how did that change after you met Gaz?

I can’t even begin to describe the difference between the two relationships. For a long time I’d assumed that marriage was basically what you did when you couldn’t be bother to find someone better and had decided that you could tolerate “this person” for the rest of your life, perhaps to gain some sort of financial benefit. I had no idea that relationships didn’t have to be about tolerating someone you vaguely liked at one point when you were young. That it didn’t have to be all about sacrifice and giving up yourself, that you don’t have to change to suit someone else’s whims and needs.

I’m loathe to call it a fairy tale because fairy tales don’t exist in reality, but finally realising that it was possible to find someone who wants to be with you, who trusts you, who enjoys your company, who encourages your hobbies rather than wanting to destroy them, who talks to you like an adult instead of arguing day in & day out… well I had no hesitation in marrying Gaz knowing I’d have a lifetime of this!

After choosing to – as most people say it – get in shape, you found your love for weightlifting. I found my love for it after I was sick of being called “weak” and realised that skinny was not enough, and I wanted to be strong. But everyone has a different story, what’s yours?

Around the time I kicked out my ex I’d started running to help deal with some mental health issues that were brewing under the surface. Unfortunately, during a 10km run, I landed badly in a hole and caused a stress fracture to my left foot. Faced with potentially losing out on the benefits of exercise (and re-gaining weight I’d lost) I started lifting some basic weights at home. I continued to lose weight, and when I was able to run again, kept up the lifting to give me physical strength when mentally I felt anything but strong.

I’m keen to hear what you think about the diversity and inclusion initiatives that are happening in the industry of technology, especially as a freelancer not working for a particular company. Do you think freelancers are not as exposed, or equally exposed, to the problems these initiatives are trying to solve?

As mentioned earlier, I do feel that I personally am not as affected by certain exclusions by virtue of being a relatively “successful” freelancer (i.e. I can pay my bills!) I do think that initiatives can positively impact upon e.g. hiring rates of women in tech companies, but that in itself is not an answer if the work environment is toxic. Google, for example, has diversity and inclusion policies and has partnered with the Women Techmakers program, but it was only last year we had the “google memo” fiasco which demonstrated there are still huge barriers to overcome. I can’t even begin to imagine what this is like for e.g. women of colour, who face additional hardships because of their colour.

We’ve all heard about clients from hell. I’d love to hear a story about the best client you’ve ever had.

The vast majority of my clients are awesome – it would be hard to single one out in particular – and in fact several have become good friends (or are good friends turned client!) I am incredibly fortunate to have not only ended up working with fantastic people from all over the world, but have been privileged enough to be able to turn down people who were not a good fit for me and my business.

If we were to go grab a drink at a bar, what would you order?

Having realised last year that alcohol was significantly impacting my mental health I’m currently on my second sober stint, so would have to choose a simple orange juice & lemonade. Simple and cheap.

It was wonderful getting some insight from Jem about her experiences not just with tech but with life in general. 🙌 You can read Jem’s blog, find her on Twitter @jemjabella, or on Instagram, where she’s definitely no stranger to selfies. 🤳

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Loved learning more about Jem through this post! I’ve followed her blog for over a decade now, and I remember how much I used to aspire to be as influential as she was online. Of course, I soon realised that was ridiculous as I’m useless at code,so would never ever get that far, but she’s always produced fantastic content. I remember how much The Pants Award used to terrify me also, though!

I imagine going freelance is such a difficult decision to make, especially when you have children, but it’s great to see that it does work for some people. I bet it’s so rewarding being able to spend more time with your family and being able to be there for more of the school plays and such!

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