We have a responsibility to create opportunities

I recently wrote about why I began to think a lot about how to be more professional. In that post, I gave a little insight into how I got into the software industry without a degree, and this inspired me to write about the importance of opportunity.

Mark Zuckerberg was taught programming by his father, who then hired a professional software engineer to tutor the young protégé. Zuckerberg went to Harvard, where he later launched Facebook.

Bill Gates‘ mother sat on the board of United Way, where she met John Opel, the chairman of IBM, to whom she talked about her son’s company. Soon afterward, IBM hired the tiny startup Microsoft to create an operating system for its first personal computer. Bill Gates also went to Harvard – one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

Both of these examples serve to illustrate how important opportunities are. If Mark Zuckerberg’s father hadn’t had the resources to hire a professional to tutor him, and send him to Harvard, would he have gone on to create Facebook? If Bill Gates’ mother hadn’t introduced Microsoft to IBM, would Windows even exist?

Personally speaking, I have had incredible opportunities in my life and career, without which I would not be where I am today. Some of them are small things; my parents allowed me to decide for myself whether I wanted to take the 11-plus transfer test. I chose to. I wasn’t well the day I took the test, and I was offered the chance to retake it. I declined, and when my results arrived, I was very glad I did. I got an A – which meant I got to attend my first-choice school, which was a grammar school. This didn’t work out quite as well as I’d hoped – but while I was at school, our next-door neighbour who had his own business, got a new computer, and I got his old one. This kick-started my interest, and my parents, who couldn’t afford to buy me a computer, proceeded to find ways to keep upgrading to better and better ones, spurred on by my interest. I used to sit up til all hours of the morning programming, designing and creating things with my computer. Perhaps they could have, or should have, forced me to spend much less time on the computer, but they didn’t. The consequence of this was that I got really, really good at it – despite not doing well academically.

After I left school and went to work in the call centre, I had an opportunity to become a ‘floor-walker’ almost immediately. This gave me incredible exposure to responsibility and knowledge; and very soon after I had opportunities to become a trainer, and then a team leader. All of these opportunities gave me valuable skills and experience by the time I was 21.

I partnered with a friend to design and build an online business directory in my mid-twenties. It was never a particularly sound business idea, but it gave me the chance to develop amazing skills. This experience led directly to the chance to work at a web agency in Belfast – my first real job in the industry in 2008. The studio boss hired me after one interview, and having that company on my CV was fuel that propelled me to future interviews. I blew that particular opportunity after a couple of months, but it was crucial for my future career.

2009 saw me join a small startup, where I was the only developer. I worked for 18 months building a bespoke CMS and CRM integrated system, and began working with Amazon Web Services for the first time.

I was going to get out of software in 2011, and I went to see Barry Smyth at MCS Recruitment in Belfast about a VoIP training job (VoIP and training were two of my skills at the time). He spotted my software development experience, and in particular PHP – and told me about a Senior Developer role that he had to fill. I took a chance, and he even drove me to the interview. I got the job, and a few months later when the department manager left, the company weren’t going to replace her – the idea being that the team could just ‘self manage’. I convinced the MD to let me run the department – albeit he agreed to do so without giving me a pay rise – but I got a vast amount of experience in business development and management.

I went to a job interview in 2014 for a tech lead role at a startup. One of the interviewers was Andrew Gough, the MD of GCD. I didn’t get that particular job, but Andrew told his business partner, Andrew Cuthbert about me, and he got in touch to interview me for a Project Manager role at GCD. GCD gave me incredible opportunities and knowledge that led to an opportunity to become CTO at startup in 2016.

Working at that startup exposed me to the opportunity to dive back in to Amazon Web Services, and learn NodeJS and serverless technology. I also got the chance to work with some fantastic developers. When I left, I left with a little bit of money that was enough to help me fulfil my dream of starting my own company, and Relative was born.

This journey is filled with opportunities. There have been many others. But what I wanted to highlight is that, skill, ability, talent and hard work alone are not enough to build a career. If I, or Mark Zuckerberg, or Bill Gates had been born in a developing country, rather than a developed one, none of those opportunities would have been available to us. If our parents hadn’t been able to give us opportunities early in our lives, would we have pursued careers in technology at all? This is probably the only time my name will appear in the same breath as Mark Zuckerberg or Bill gates. 🙂

The thing is that opportunity is what makes the difference between potential and success.

I have to believe, given my background, that there are lots of very talented individuals out there who do not have the credentials or experience to get a job that would make the most of their abilities. What will make the difference between their potential, and success in their careers is opportunity.

Opportunity is far from a one way street. The vision and guts to take an opportunity when it’s presented to you is a quality that not everyone has. As I’ve already alluded to in this article, I have blown plenty of opportunities.

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work

Thomas Edison

When I think back to my days in the call centre, there was a girl I met there who had been studying mechanical engineering. Her dream was to be a diesel mechanic, but she had to obtain a placement to complete her course. She recounted her heartbreak to me when not a single garage or repair shop was willing to give her a placement because ‘she would be sexually harassed and they didn’t want to be responsible’. This horrified me at the time, and has never left me. She couldn’t fulfil her dream, despite her hard work and dedication, because opportunities were being actively denied to her, purely because she was female.

I’ve grown up with strong female role models my whole life, and I have always been puzzled by the gender imbalance in industries like technology and engineering. I’ve worked with very few female technologists in my career, and this was in the front of my mind when I started Relative.

Not long after I started the company – as a lone contractor – I told my wife that I needed to hire someone to help me out. I knew I couldn’t quite afford a fully qualified developer, so I’d have to hire a junior. I thought back on the opportunities that I’d had in my career, and I knew that I wanted to use the resources that I now had to offer an opportunity for someone who may not otherwise have it.

I set about designing a Paid Internship programme, and my good friend Kellie Lavery whom I’d met back in my call centre days, offered to help with shortlisting and interviewing. I offered an opportunity for someone who had never worked in the software industry, but who was studying or had a genuine interest in software engineering. I got over a hundred applications, some of them half-baked, but some of them were genuinely impressive. We eventually spent a full day interviewing 7 candidates, all of whom we had asked to prepare a short presentation for us.

We had a broad spectrum of candidates. Men, women, teenagers and people in their forties. In the end, we chose Arlene O’Donnell for the three month paid internship on the basis that not only could I benefit from having her to help me – she’d been studying programming as a mature student at college for over a year – but she would genuinely benefit from the opportunity. The others in her class were teenagers, and she was in her late twenties. Her enthusiasm and drive, despite her personal disadvantages really stood out, and I am very glad we did. She has proven to be an incredibly valuable member of the team, having stayed on after her internship.

It felt good to be able to begin paying back some of the opportunities I’ve had, and at the beginning of 2020, with a team of 11 at Relative – including my good friend Kellie, now in a permanent position as our Programme Delivery Manager – we began our LaunchPad programme, offering four talented people the chance to come and study at Relative with full pay for three months. Last week, the three remaining candidates joined our agile development teams, and I know they’re going to do us proud as Junior Developers.

As part of my personal commitment to create opportunities for people, I have signed Relative up as a member of The 5% Club.

The 5% Club is a movement of employers working to create a shared prosperity across the UK by campaigning for greater skills training, through ‘earn and learn’ job opportunities. Members aim to achieve 5% of their workforce in ‘earn and learn’ positions within five years of joining the club.

It’s our responsibility as employers to recognise that we are where we are today thanks to the opportunities we’ve had throughout our careers. We need to find ways to create opportunities. Opportunities for young people to develop a career, even if academia is not for them. Opportunities for women in technology and engineering. Opportunities for people who don’t have the financial resources to create opportunities for themselves. We will all benefit from the diversity, fresh thinking, loyalty and dedication we get from affording people opportunities.

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