The original ‘big tech’

Let’s set the scene, it’s 1997, I’m 18 years old and I’ve just started work in a high-tech industry, building military aeroplanes (I’m in the photo above).

Before this, I was flipping burgers at McDonald’s. At that time you had a name badge, like the one below except my name wasn’t Vikky, and I never earned all 5 stars. The side story behind the stars is that you had to study and pass a test to get each one. I only ever got the ‘sweeping up and mopping’ star. I had one go at taking the orders, but I was rubbish at it. Luckily I was good at flipping burgers, so that’s where I spent most of my time.

Before McDonalds, I worked at Burger King, and in the 2 years between leaving school and eventually leaving McDonald’s I had done a whole bunch of stuff: block paving, trainee joiner, trainee mechanic, trainee plumber, pizza maker and even a short stint trying to study business at college (a story for another time).

Back to the story…

When I left school there were two major employers in Hull (my home town), BAE SYSTEMS and BP. A sign of success for a young person was getting on an apprenticeship at either of those companies.

I was lucky that I met the minimum requirements to get into BAE SYSTEMS. I applied, and the process was a full-day event full of aptitude tests, behavioural tests and interviews. It was intense.

I passed, with about 50 other people and began my journey.

Within the first couple of weeks, I discovered there were two pathways, the engineer and the technician. One was a blue-collar worker, destined to work on the shop floor building aeroplanes and the other was the white-collar worker who would work in the offices.

I was a blue-collar worker, and I was happy with that.

The real difference was that the engineers (blue collar) would get trained to apprenticeship standards (Level 3) whereas the technicians (white collar) would get trained up to university level (Level 5 or 6).

At this point, I didn’t even know what a university was. This might be hard to believe, but the university wasn’t on my radar. No one in my family had ever been to university and I remember during ‘career conversations’ at school when I was put into a group which only focused on vocational routes, not academic routes. So the word ‘university’ wasn’t really in my vocabulary.

So here I am, having this realisation that there was a whole new world beyond my horizon.

And I wanted some of it…

As the first year went on I started to see some engineers move across to the technician track. So I asked the training manager – what about me? Can I do that?

The answer was – No.

This repeated almost on a weekly/bi-weekly basis – for 2 years (I am very persistent).

Still – No.

There were a couple of reasons why I got this answer. Firstly, I didn’t have the grades (remember – I only just met the entry requirements). Secondly, I was pretty disruptive back then, which is the polite version. As an example, I discovered you could walk around the 86-acre site for hours with a blank piece of paper. If anyone asked where you were going you would simply wave the blank sheet at them and say you were ‘going to the stores’ – no one ever checked.

And if you ever meet me face to face – ask me about the chicken gun!

In short… I didn’t have the grades, and I didn’t have the attitude.

So what was my next move?

Obviously, I wasn’t happy. There wasn’t even a route I could take. Because even if my behaviour changed, my grades wouldn’t have (not quick enough anyways – my training window was too short). So my opinions were limited, I was upset and I felt trapped.

So what did I do? I applied directly to the university.

I turned up to an open evening at the university, met the lecturers, told them my story, showed them my passion for the subject, my wiliness to succeed and I had a great narrative on how I would fund it, and how I could fit it all in while still working.

You could see them weighing everything up, which seemed like an eternity and then the answer came…

“NO – you don’t have the grades”

FML – I’m done – that’s how it felt.

Door after door was shutting, less and less options were available. I’m done and I was out of ideas.

So that’s it, right? That’s the end of the story? For most people maybe but not for me. Maybe I’m too stubborn, some might call it ‘driven’, maybe I just don’t like being told that I can’t do something – IDK what it was, but I couldn’t let my journey end there.

The Pivot

I went away and licked my wounds.

And if you don’t understand what a big deal this was to the now 19-year-old version of me, then perhaps I’ve not been descriptive enough. But it was a terrible time for me.

And while licking my wounds, I tried to understand what it was that hurt me the most. And in short, it was being blocked from moving forwards. See it wasn’t the technician (white collar) route that I wanted. It was the route forward, it was that I had discovered this whole new world of universities and degrees, and my path was blocked.

So what did I do? And don’t laugh, because I do see the funny side of this next statement…

I applied to Business School and got accepted.

The real lesson

So there I was, a 19-year-old, apprentice engineer working full time at BAE SYSTEMS, completing a vocational course during the days and now studying 2 nights per week at business school.

At 19 years old, I was the youngest in that class by at least 10 years. And, excluding me, the average age would have been mid 30’s. I was an outlier for sure.

But I did it, I turned up 2 nights per week, 6 pm to 9 pm, completed assignments at degree level, and succeeded.

I finished the first year of the business course at the same time as I finished my apprenticeship, and I left both to go on to a full-time degree in Business and IT.

I had not only unblocked my route to university, I had also started walking down it. And the rest is history, as some might say.

My Takeaways

Throughout that journey, I learned a lot about determination. If I didn’t have the attitude that I had back then, I wouldn’t have gone on to achieve the things I have. I would have just accepted my fate.

Life isn’t fair. Others do get opportunities that you don’t. And sometimes you just can’t do anything about it. But you do have more control than you think.

You grow and change over time. Who you was yesterday doesn’t mean you have to be that same person today. I wasn’t ‘smart’ enough to get straight into the engineering course – since then I have completed an MSc in Machine Learning and an MBA, both with a distinction, in addition to completing a PhD.

Don’t let other people’s opinions stop you from doing what you want. But also, don’t be a blocker for someone else too. Your words have power, be mindful of that power.

Be prepared to work hard. I was working 40hrs per week, plus 2 nights at Business School. During those 2 days, I would leave my home at 7 am and get back in at 10 pm. Weekends also consisted of reading papers/textbooks and assignment work. And this was the same for everyone else on that course.

And as I reflect on this, I think of the words of two great philosophers:

  • Seneca – “It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness”
  • Rob Schneider…