Graduate perspective: Finding your career path and making your luck

Guest blog written by Paul Smith (Electronic & Electrical Engineering, 1990)

Paul graduated from The University of Manchester in 1990. He is now the Managing Director of a web application business. Find out his story and how he overcome the barriers in his journey to get to where he is now.

“The journey started with a decision most of us had when doing A-levels – what course should I take at university when I don’t really know what I want to do as a career for the rest of my working life?”

I was studying Maths and Physics and my main hobby at the time was electronics and building guitar amps so there it was, Electronic & Electrical Engineering – easy!  How that translated into a future career was less obvious.

Fortunately, I managed to secure sponsorship whilst studying at University from the Ministry of Defence (MoD).  Purely by chance, I was assigned to their Quality Assurance (QA) function not knowing anything about what it was. Two summers’ worth of working in QA with the MoD and degree successfully navigated, I started full-time employment with a large defence contractor of the day called Ferranti, as a Project Quality Engineer.

Cometh the Internet

Although not specifically using my degree, I really enjoyed the job as it introduced me to all aspects and processes involved in running a business from tendering through to invoicing. I remained in quality assurance for several years and then moved into something called ‘change management’ which was also associated with ‘process design and improvement’.

Throughout this period, I had never lost my interest in computing which started with the Sinclair ZX81. In the early nineties, I had started making any work I did easier by writing software known as ‘macros’ in Word and Excel.  And then, wow, mid-nineties, the Internet had arrived and, specifically for me, early company Intranets. Overnight you could now deliver process and procedure via this amazing new interactive tool called a web browser. This was an epiphany for me, and I took a sideways step back into QA and started creating web solutions for delivering what had traditionally been offered as printed out procedural documents sat on an office shelf.

Corporate pursuits

Towards the end of the 1990s, a whole new industry had been created called ‘New Media’. Engrossed with the world-wide-web, I started working my way up through an organisation to Senior Management level. It was only then, however, that I started realising I didn’t enjoy the corporate ladder, company politics, doing appraisals etc. (either that or I was rubbish at it, probably a bit of both).  My main interest still, even working at this level, was developing internal web solutions that made the overall business more stream-lined and efficient.

Starting my own business

I ended up leaving that business but someone I had recruited said ‘why don’t you set up your own web business?’. This was something I had never considered – I was 35 and had always assumed you needed to be properly grown-up and really clever to manage your own business – remember this was the world pre-Apprentice and Dragons’ Den!

Although it’s not for everyone, I can honestly say I have enjoyed working for myself from home for the last 17 years. I still see my job as messing about on a computer all day but getting paid for it. I would like to think I have had a major impact on the organisations I have worked for – replacing bits of paper and Excel spreadsheets with slick web solutions.


Takeaways

Unless you have a clear career path defined at the age of 21, keep your options open – this might include a slice of luck as per my sponsorship but otherwise, make your own luck.

I would also recommend always asking yourself “what are you in it for?”. You may wish to get on the Corporate ladder for financial reward but remember there may be things you dislike about it but have to put up with.  Personally, I value doing a job that I enjoy so my path has led me to the correct conclusion.

Finally, never get stuck in a rut.  Generally, the only person that can improve your working life is you.  Continually look to evolve what you do and question yourself. To a certain extent, COVID-19 has made me focus on what I do and how I can improve but make sure you don’t wait for the next pandemic to do this.

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