As I roam around the potential landscape for my dissertation, and speak to leaders of various sorts, in various capacities, I found my mind wondering to my first leadership decision. The first moment I stood up to be counted and made a decision that held some risk. The brain works in strange ways, and as soon as I thought about it my synapses kicked in and the memory flooded into my consciousness.
If you ignore two months spent in the ‘benefits office’ after graduating from University, I walked straight into a very good role through connections. This ability to avoid interviews and recruitment processes would become a facet of my career.. The title was Software Engineer, but in truth, Analyst Programmer is a better fit. It involved working across the full solutions life-cycle from sales support through to training with analysis and development along the way. There was implementation consultancy and account management as well. The joys of working for an SME where roles aren’t discreetly compartmentalised. The solution was used offshore, involving software, hand held devices and, occasionally, RFID tags. The clients were the various oil majors, of which there was a good number more at the time. It was also a Knowledge Transfer Project (KTP) with Teesside University, so it had interesting University engagement elements as well.
It was a great first job. It was based in the North East (of England). I must have got the bus backwards and forwards to work as I didn’t have a car. I don’t remember that, but I must have done. Anyway, new directors were employed, decisions were made and it was decided the software team would send a representative to Aberdeen, on a weekly rotation, so there was always one working there. It became highly political, due to turf wars. At the time, it was also stressful for the team of four (and a department manager), as we’d all taken the roles factoring in the location, so having such a radical change to our work and life balance so early in that journey was frustrating.
I was the second person to go to Aberdeen, after the first person’s tenure hadn’t gone well and he’d embarrassed himself in front of a client or two. In one week he’d created a perception of the team in the minds of the Aberdeen office that was pretty bad. It was also probably one they were expecting to have, which didn’t help. I was all set to go, the pressure on to reverse the negative perceptions and no doubt get a lot of flack.
It was the weekend before and I got a call from an oil rig out in the North Sea, they’d completed a lengthy hazardous equipment inspection and the hand held devices had failed to download the data. The data wasn’t on the hand held or in the database. Many an hour was spent on the phone at the top of the stairs going through different ideas to start the download process again, but it always kept failing. It became obvious that the application didn’t like something in the data. It wasn’t going to be solved sat on the stairs on a satellite call to the North Sea.
I faced a choice: get on that train as everyone expected, and politics and new approaches demanded, or turn up at the North East (of England) office on Monday morning and solve this problem which the engineers felt was very embarrassing considering the size of the inspection?
Two issues factored into my ultimate decision. In the first instance, I felt supporting the engineers on the oil rig was key, they were our most client facing staff and had to deal directly with the fall out with the client. Second, possibly driven a bit by naïvety at this point, I felt working to address problems that are customer facing was doing the right thing and was more important than going to Aberdeen on that specific day and morning. This was despite the political sensitivity and the ‘teams’ less than stellar performance in the first Aberdeen rotation. I chose to go into the office and not get on the train. I must admit, I worried about it a bit for most of the weekend. The whole Aberdeen restructuring had been a big deal, after all. I was going to do the ‘right thing’, rather than ‘doing things right’.
It was the right decision, when I turned up early that Monday morning and worked to resolve the problem I wasn’t viewed in the same way by the team or executives again. The decision to do something proactive rather just what I’d been told had a high level of cache in terms of reputation capital and relationship equity . I didn’t view my position and work there the same either, something transformational happened in that moment. The moment was no doubt influential when the cuts came some time later, those who were getting the axe turned right to the director who gave the bad news, those who turned left went to the director known for giving good news.
I got to turn left.
Ultimately, the smaller team of two (the manager went in the cuts) moved 100% to Aberdeen. It was a change in my life, but ultimately a good one in terms of my social and intellectual growth, but also on my finances. I was paid a healthy retainer for living in Aberdeen, which paid for my Bed and Breakfast and food, which meant I never spent any of my salary proper. I managed to arrange a nice 10-days on and 4-days off cycle, it worked quite well. Admittedly, I still lived at my parents for the four nights at home. I never did set roots down in Aberdeen, eventually I wanted to get married and ‘move back’ to the North East (of England). The year in Aberdeen did pay for the deposit on my first house though and also saw me move into a significant IT leadership position, but that’s another story.
Career Moments is a regular column on Elucidate IT focused on picking out moments in my career that might be interesting and pertinent. A bit like the approach taken in The Adventures of an IT Leader, the idea is to take personal story first, factual in this case, and then potentially bring in wider knowledge.