Reflecting On My Working Life
This post is part of a series reflecting on the end of my traditional working life as I prepare for retirement this week.
I’m resigning and retiring tomorrow, so this post is part of a series reflecting on the end of my traditional working life. It’s a perfect time to look back on what I learned and achieved over the years in a format that’s slightly more flexible than my LinkedIn CV.
If there’s one thing that’s defined my approach to work it’s the fact that I’m much more motivated by innovation and progress than I am by effort, that’s slightly different to saying that I’m lazy. What I really mean is that although I often work very hard, I have so many interests and ideas that if I’m not making progress my motivation will quickly wane. If I’m making progress however I can have quite iron like determination to push through challenges, I’m fond of saying “there’s always a way” when faced with seemingly impossible odds and in that I’m almost always right.
I started work when I was very young, my parents had a large garden with an orchard at the bottom. My brother and I had a wide range of chores and were allowed to make money by selling off surplus fruit in the summer. We could often be found manning our apple ‘stall’ on the drive of the house or making deliveries around the local area with a wheel barrow. As soon as I was old enough to be credible I established a window cleaning business (bungalows only, due to insurance constraints) then became the school librarian, physics lab-boy and after-hours handyman doing all manner of repairs around the school. I spent the summer before I headed off to university up a ladder painting with the result that I started university ‘fashionably’ dressed and the proud owner of a top notch stereo.
I mostly breezed through university, preferring self study to lectures and doing only the minimum of homework. University was notable for only two things, I met and got engaged to my wife (Debbie) and I managed to get myself a corporate sponsorship which resulted in me working through all my holidays and Debbie (also sponsored) and I being very affluent students.
My first real employment was for Debbie’s Dad, a hastily arranged 6 weeks of practical experience that I needed for my engineering degree. The job entailed a wide range of general engineering work, welding, machining, shot blasting and metal spraying. It was pretty good fun and most importantly allowed me to see Debbie every weekend. It also provided me with the opportunity to make my first big mistake, we were refurbishing a fish processing assembly line, which involved shot blasting (spraying with high velocity grit) to remove existing rust and debris and then spraying on a new molten zinc coating. While contorting myself to spray those difficult to reach places I managed to shoot a thousand holes into the corrugated plastic workshop roof. I spent a weeks wages and an afternoon fitting a new one, an experience never to forget, especially when trying to make a good impression on your future father-in-law!
I was sponsored by the English Electric Valve (EEV) company while at University, they provided guaranteed holiday work and a full years placement in return for nothing except my consideration of any offer of work, should they decide to make one, after I graduated. They made that offer, which I declined with some regret because they had been very good to me. EEV made very sophisticated microwave equipment and I was a bit out of my depth, I muddled along doing only very slightly useful activities and being humbled by how much I didn’t know. One of the more interesting tasks was to try and duplicate a competitors electro-mechanical switch. Even though I had disassembled and carefully studied it for months, my attempt at cloning all of the subtle design details failed dismally. My version of the switch being so inferior as to defy all comparison except the visual. I quickly learned just how difficult it is to copy someone else’s innovation.
When I left university I applied for four jobs and secured offers for three of them. Fortunately one of the offers was from BAE SYSTEMS Military Aircraft Division at Brough, the same company that sponsored/employed Debbie. So we both graduated with our first class honours in Mechanical Engineering and joined BAe, setting up house together in the summer and getting married in the autumn. My first job there was meant to be to create a computer simulation of a fuel test rig but the research funding failed to materialise and so I ended up doing odd jobs in the Airframe Systems department. They seemed to like me well enough but I didn’t like the job, I’d gotten the programming bug badly during my final year project and that’s what I wanted to do. Fortunately the opportunity to do a BAE SYSTEMS sponsored PhD presented itself and although it eventually came to nothing I applied and the Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) department liked me enough to offer me a job. They eventually sponsored me to do a Masters in Engineering Business Management.
Working as a programmer was a revelation, although I’d not been formally trained in computer science they trained me well and quickly and I got to do some really leading edge work, for the time, using Modula 2 and Pascal. We created a wide range of sophisticated manufacturing control systems, scheduling systems and simulations, I loved it and within about a year I was promoted to acting section leader, then a year later I got build a whole new section focused on aircraft final assembly systems and systems to aid in the assembly of hugely complex aircraft wiring looms. It was in this job that I got my first taste of business process re-engineering working with an outside consultancy, I took what I’d learned and switched off more IT systems than I created over the next few years.
As a section leader I was only leading a couple of people but I loved it, shortly after that I was offered a job as group leader within the Computer Aided Design (CAD) department, this meant I had three sections to manage, about 9 people. I quickly re-shaped this team into a more flexible Systems Integration and Support function and we grew in size and reputation as a team that would take end-to-end responsibility and bring together all manner of IT systems to meet real business needs, I was very focused on building relationships with our customers and on service responsiveness.
In keeping with this service focus I spent my evenings developing a help desk ticket tracking and reporting system which we used for many years called Job Log. I also inherited a section responsible for an overly complex and incredibly expensive system for scanning and then electronically distributing aircraft drawings, called EDSRS. I scrapped it and designed a new system that we built using all off the shelf building blocks, the costs fell by a factor of 10 and performance improved similarly and the result was effective, elegant and flexible. The core software was written in Visual Basic, my all time favourite language, so productive, extensible and fun. It was a tremendous success and usage grew to several thousand users before it was re-written again for the web many years later, which is funny since while I was working on EDSRS I got my first exposure to the web (which was about 2 years old at the time) and really wanted to use it then, but technical limitations constrained me. EDSRS gave me a real taste for PCs and in particular for Windows NT which we used as a server to great effect.
I didn’t realise it at the time but the problems that I solved would lay the foundations for my next 20 years in IT. I’d already designed standard desktop images that I would later deploy to thousands of PCs, automated software distribution systems, self healing and updating applications, automated software compatibility assessment, PC networking, networked file systems and much more.
In addition to this work on EDSRS I also revolutionised the way we introduced IT systems to the engineers at Brough, instead of each technology being delivered independently by different departments, and never integrated, I sold customers on an end-to-end systems integration service provided by my team. The result was a seemingly endless series of battles with all manner of vested interests, but also a vastly superior experience for customers who were able to have a real business conversation with me and then let me translate that into an integrated IT solution that we would project manage and support as a whole. After three major implementations done in this fashion to support very high profile projects I was ready for my next move.
I’ve been striving for this kind of crystal clear accountability for delivering solutions ever since, and rarely achieved it
My next move involved a promotion to lead IT infrastructure design for 6000 engineers but also a move across country with Debbie and my two eldest daughters to Military Aircraft’s head office at Warton, we actually lived in St Annes just up the coast. Although my responsibility increased dramatically, the job was very different, being all about setting direction and managing budgets rather than managing people which was initially constraining. But I quickly built a new team as we expanded our ambitions to defining a new desktop, email, intranet, file, print and management services for the whole engineering workforce, which was quickly expanded to the whole division and then the whole UK business. I did this work in partnership with our out-sourcing partner (CSC) and it was an excellent relationship of mutual trust and respect.
I focused on the vision and they focused on the execution, but there were no hard, artificial, lines of responsibility, we were a team.
Riding high on the success of this huge programme I jumped ship to work for CSC and became both customer and supplier for a while, before transitioning fully into the supplier role once I started working across multiple customers. Although I started as an individual contributor (chief architect) within CSC I was quickly offered another job, leading a new team that was to be responsible for Architecture and New Services for Desktop and Collaboration Services in EMEA. This was a fantastic job, I hand picked a small team and we quickly expanded to the point where we had outgrown the shared offices. The fortuitous result was we got approval to rent and refurbish a dedicated office block, the ‘notorious’ PTMC. My team did all the design and implementation work ourselves, designing everything from the networking to the server rooms and the desk layouts. We chose our own coffee machine, ran our own tuck shop, created a library and all manner of workplace design innovations.
A full ten years after we’d implemented this flexible office with 100% laptops, mobile phones, secure wireless networking, virtual machine based lab environments etc. the same standards had not yet reached CSC’s mainstream offices.
This little team of 30-40 people was a real hot-bed of innovation, left mostly ‘unmolested’ by the rest of CSC and thus free to drive progress we achieved more in three years than in the subsequent ten, working on collaboration, mobility, desktop and flexible office IT and travelling the world. Of course it was not to last, as almost always happens in a big company, small high performance integrated teams don’t fit into the standard operating model and we were forced to break up, officially. Within weeks I’d reassembled most of the team in support of a major new infrastructure programme I was leading.
It’s been very gratifying to see how key members of that team moved on to great things inside and outside of CSC and how often old team members tell me those few years counted as some of the best in their working lives. It certainly marked the high point for me.
Unfortunately losing the support structures that I’d carefully designed into my little department and exposed to the cut and thrust of global company politics my stress levels started to build up resulting in the first of many auto-immune flares, this first one had me off work for 6 weeks. When I returned I was well enough to build a new large scale desktop refresh programme, almost from scratch, but just as the customer signed off the solution and implementation budget I had another major flare, which I never fully recovered from.
I had to leave the design and implementation project to others, which was very frustrating.
Having had two bad flares and still struggling with my health I decided that I needed to make a significant lifestyle change and switched back to being an individual contributor, working from home part-time. With unreliable health, lacking a well defined role and with unsympathetic management I drifted for a couple of years. Thanks to a good friend of mine I finally found a new home in product management for our global desktop business.
It was such a relief to be back in a small team again with empathic management, but global roles also mean endless conference calls and long days which I found demoralising and product management was hugely frustrating compared to the focus and daily progress I’d learned to love working on customer projects.
I started to look around for alternatives and when the next re-organisation ‘struck’ I decided to move into the desktop service delivery organisation in EMEA taking responsibility for strategy and planning. Shortly after starting this job we got a new manager (an old friend of mine from Brough) and my role expanded to strategy and planning for desktop, mobility and collaboration services. Together with the senior management team we integrated and re-shaped the services organisation, another very enjoyable period of real progress working with a high performance team.
I then got seduced by a customer into the technical leadership of a major desktop design and deployment programme, I got to pick my own team again and convinced myself that my health could cope. I managed pretty well during the solution design phase, but the customer struggled to secure their budgets, a key customer left the programme and the politics and uncertainty took it’s toll. I ended up depending heavily on medications for daily survival and then finally I flared badly again.
I quietly and contentedly slipped back into my strategy and planning role
We now come to the last few years and I’m going to skip most of the details, suffice it to say that it’s been a period of huge change as the organisation flirted with regional, global, then regional accountability, tried product and then process based organisations, attempted hugely ambitious projects, followed by solidly practical ones. I’ve stumbled along making the best contribution I can with the limited time and energy that I have available. My focus has been on a combination of keeping our strategy clear, challenging the organisation to do better and coaching key people on execution. I’ve had some really great times working closely with good friends that I’ve known for many years, but it’s been frustrating too.
The last couple of years though have become ever more difficult, my health is less reliable and the business is changing too fast. It’s difficult for me to keep up, the fragmentation of accountabilities means that work has ceased to be fun and so grudgingly but now excitedly I’ve decided to resign and retire, bringing to an end my story of traditional work.
In closing one of the few remarkable things about this story is that apart from the first two jobs as a team member not one of the 15 leadership roles existed before I did it, every one was created by me or for me. I’ve never been able to ask a predecessor what to do, I’ve always found my next boss, written my own job description, convinced him to pay me and got stuck in.
I’ve learned a lot over the last 30 years, it’s impossible to compress those lessons into a few words, even the thousand plus post in this blog only scratch the surface, but if there’s one blog post that captures the essence, it’s this one, My Top 10 Strategies For Enabling Productive People and if there’s one quote from it that captures my approach to work best it’s:
I’m going to quickly step through this ten point list to explain how all of the items work together to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of the parts and that creates a culture of excellence, teamwork, trust, loyalty, adaptability and pride.
I’ve always approached work in a unique (so people tell me) and innovative way, I’ve always cared deeply about the people who worked with and for me and it’s troubled me greatly that the larger company is not always able (often for good reasons) to do the same. I’ve been appraised hundreds of times, with almost always the same feedback, I’m different. That difference is rooted in the fact that I have Asberger’s syndrome, but it’s not held me back much. I’ve spent my working life learning how to challenge my constraints and exploit my strengths. Many people with Asbergers seem to lack emotion, but that’s not my experience, instead I’m overwhelmed by emotion (and noise and movement), circumstances that others breeze through are so over-powering for me that I can barely speak or think clearly, so I’ve had to learn unusual coping tactics.
The very last piece of feedback that I received yesterday sum’s it all up nicely for me, it’s the way I’d like to think back on the last 30 years:
I think I speak for many people when I say you have been an inspiration. Your vision and leadership has shaped a generation … You will be sadly missed, those sessions on the balcony, the adventures at the PTMC, right back the the BAE days at Warton. It’s been one hell of an 18 year journey! Please keep up the writing and blogging. Finally I’d like to say a big thank you for all you have done for so many of us. Good luck with your new life
This post wouldn’t be complete without a hat-tip to the The People Who Shaped My Working Life!
I’ve tapped this post out in Caffe Nero as usual, early in the morning while it’s quiet and I sit in the window, watching the town come to life. I pondered for a while whether to illustrate this post with a sunset or a sunrise, and in the end I decided a sunset was most appropriate for a post marking the end of my traditional working life, this is a particularly nice pic of St Annes beach that I took last year.