My last engagement of the year was also one of my proudest. On Wednesday, I was invited to be the guest speaker at my old school’s presentation evening. This is the annual event at which GCSE and A-Level students collect their certificates and awards for academic excellence. I helped award some of the certificates and prizes and, toward the end, give a fifteen minute talk about.. well, whatever I wanted, but it ended up being a potted history of what I’d done with myself since school plus some words of encouragement for the awardees. I wish I’d recorded it. Everything that follows is an abbreviated summary of what I said, based on the 6 pages of notes I used going into it, plus memories of the bits I improvised…
I broke the ice by reminiscing about an afternoon almost exactly 11 years ago in which some friends and I ‘borrowed’ some sort of evergreen tree from the local park in order to make our sixth form common room more festive. It certainly wasn’t a christmas tree, and it smelled of cats.
It’s hard not to be sentimental about coming back to the school. Partly because I have some genuinely warm memories of it, partly because it’s where my Dad now works (as a counsellor, offering a drop-in service for young people who need help) and partly because it’s where I met my wife, when we were taking our A-Levels together.
What do you want to be when you’re older? Have you ever been asked the question? Have you ever asked it of someone else? Do you know what your answer would be?
When I was 15, I knew exactly what I wanted to be; a lawyer. Specifically, a barrister. But it didn’t work out that way. In the end, choosing a degree ended up being about picking a subject I knew I’d enjoy more, and my hobby since I was quite young had been tinkering with computers and programming them. This was before the school offered an A-Level in ICT, so all the way through school it was purely a hobby for my own enjoyment.
In case that sounds strange, or you’ve never experienced the satisfaction of getting a computer to do exactly what you want, here’s a quote from a new book by Cory Doctorow, ‘Little Brother‘ from the end of chapter 7:
A computer is the most complicated machine you’ll ever use. It’s
made of billions of micro-miniaturized transistors that can be
configured to run any program you can imagine. But when you sit
down at the keyboard and write a line of code, those transistors do
what you tell them to.
Most of us will never build a car. Pretty much none of us will
ever create an aviation system. Design a building. Lay out a city.
Those are complicated machines, those things, and they’re off
limits to the likes of you and me. But a computer is like, ten times
more complicated, and it will dance to any tune you play. You can
learn to write simple code in an afternoon. Start with a language
like Python, which was written to give non-programmers an
easier way to make the machine dance to their tune. Even if you
only write code for one day, one afternoon, you have to do it.
Computers can control you or they can lighten your work if you
want to be in charge of your machines, you have to learn to write
When I was picking a subject in which to take a degree, I realised that if I wanted to really understand computers, and maybe even get a job doing the things I most enjoyed, I could study Computer Science. I found a few really good courses which looked like they’d be a lot of fun. Even better, I found one which was sponsored by IBM; 3 days a week at university, 2 days a week at work, less holiday than most students, but also fewer debts.
After I graduated IBM offered me a full-time job and I accepted, working first as a tester (finding bugs), then service (fixing them and keeping clients calm), then development (writing code and creating the bugs), then emerging technology (first-of-a-kinds and proof-of-concepts, with a lot of freedom to explore new stuff). That freedom to explore brand new territory is how I ended up calling myself a Metaverse Evangelist; I got interested and involved, together with my friend Ian and eventually with a wider team across the world, with how IBM and its clients could use virtual worlds.
Earlier this year, I joined the BBC as Portfolio Executive, Social Media – BBC Vision. Social media includes tools for discussing and sharing information, and BBC Vision is the division of the BBC that handles TV. So I look after social online stuff for BBC TV. Half of the room I’m speaking to (that is, the half that are not parents and teacher) probably live their lives on some combination of Bebo, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, MSN, etc. It may seem strange to think that a huge part of my job is understanding how the BBC can use those things, plus other social stuff (blogs, message-boards, chat, rating, comments, games, …) effectively. That job exists now, but a few years ago I could never have guessed I’d be doing it.
Which leads us back to the question, what do you want to be when you’re older? I pointed out that it’s very hard to answer, because you’re making a prediction about what you’ll enjoy in the future.
My ‘career’ has included software testing, service, development, emerging technology, social media. Each of those things has, for me, led to the next, but it’s not a map, it’s a history. It’s one possible route to have taken to get somewhere I didn’t even plan to go in the first place. The job I’m doing now didn’t exist last year. The virtual worlds role was one that a colleague and I created ourselves.
So what would I have wanted to know, if I were in the room having just received my certificates? Well, I’m going to share some secrets from the so-called grown-up world.
It’s OK not to have a plan. In fact, there is no plan.  Your parents and teachers may look like they know what they’re doing, and they may expect you to have your life mapped out, but here’s the shocker: they’re all making it up as they go along! It’s perfectly OK to do what you think is fun and interesting. Of course, choosing the things you want to focus on means you’ll need to know enough about the world to know what you find fun and interesting, which means you’ll have to be open minded rather than passive. Most importantly you’ll need to be flexible and prepared to change.
I ended by saying that I hoped they’d have as much fun as I’ve had. I’d been wondering about a closing line (everything I’d thought of leading up to the event had been sickeningly trite and glib. “What do you want to be when you’re older? I hope you’ll be happy” just wasn’t going to work), but somehow, just as I was finishing off, I got into a nice little “I hope you… ” pattern. I hope you’ll have as much fun as I’ve had… so it felt quite natural to end on “I hope you’ll change the world” .
1 – Last month, I shared what I was planning to talk about during the speech, and asked what other people would have wanted to tell their younger selves. The response was staggering. I could have spent hours going through it with them in detail, and really wanted to. If you’ve found this post because you saw the talk, please do take the time to read it. At the risk of sounding like a grown up, I wish I’d seen all of that when I was your age.
2 – As I sat down, I realised where I’d seen that recently; the introduction to Little Brother ends with “He [Cory Doctorow] hopes you’ll use technology to change the world”. Considering that I was unintentionally borrowing Cory’s phrase, I’m glad I missed the bit about technology.