The Best Things I Ever Did Were Accidents

or “There Is No Breadcrumb Trail”

Back in 2004, freshly graduated from university, I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to launch my career. I possessed no realistic vision of how to achieve success, but I sure as hell had a fantasy of the result: me at the helm of a modest sized company with a few dozen employees, revenues of a few million a year, living in wealth and luxury whilst not being too pretentious.

My plan to achieve this blurred vision was straightforward:
Stage 1 = learn to code and get a degree
Stage 2 = ?
Stage 3 = profit

With Stage 1 complete I was about to set off into the world of work, kitted out with bags of ambition, a satchel of high hopes, and a bumbag of naivety.

To start I needed a job – any job, just so long as it was in IT. I knew for a fact that once I’d gotten a bit of experience under my belt (and more vitally on my CV) life would get easier, but getting that first position – a foothold on the employment ladder – was to be the most excruciatingly painful part of my working life so far.

After a fuck-ton of unsuccessful interviews I eventually found myself faced with an offer of a good salary and an easy 15 minute commute to a nearby tin can factory. I never intended to get into the manufacturing industry, but it was a job, and that’s all that mattered. I accepted the offer and felt resplendent with my very first job title: Analyst Programmer.

My “Analyst Programmer” role immediately morphed into a systems administration one, as a result my career had stalled before it had barely started. A little over a year later, on the day I decided to look for another job, I received a letter from my university’s alumni association. As luck would have it the letter contained a job description; the university was working in partnership with a local food factory that was looking for a young and ambitious software engineer to take on a two year project. It felt perfect; I needed a challenging position to get my career back on track.

After two extremely involving interviews (in the first I had to give a presentation of how I’d architect a shopfloor production management system, in the second I was interviewed by six people at 7pm on a dark winter’s evening) I was offered the job at the food factory. My modicum of experience in the manufacturing industry (apparently rather rare amongst IT people), had helped to swing it. From Systems Administrator (nee Analyst Programmer) I became Systems Development Manager, in an IT department of one: me.

Spin forward in time, and as the two year project approached its end I was at an impasse. My job remit had given me much responsibility and had taken a Herculean effort to complete, and during those two gruelling but enjoyable years my sense of ambition had been revived, since festering at my first job. Going back to a regular nine-to-five didn’t appeal. I attended several interviews but nothing clicked; the jobs didn’t inspire me, thus I was lacklustre and was offered none of the permanent roles I applied for.

Ultimately I accepted a two month contract coding gig, perfect for earning some money while I figured out what to do with my life. The world of contracting was new to me, this being only my third job, and I was surprised and delighted by the substantial remuneration, given that I was still a green 24 year old. After a couple of weeks I began to think: “Contracting might not be just a stopgap, maybe this is the dream?”

This contract job was at my old university, and now having this education sector experience on my CV helped me get another contract position: a 6 month stint across town at the county’s other university. This second contract came to an end in November 2008, and as the credit crunch tightened its grip the IT job market tanked, both permanent and contract. Especially contract.

By January 2009 the job scene was still desolate, and only one of the few interviews I’d had was for contract work. I consider this interview to be the worst I’ve ever had. The first half of it – the talky bit – went great, but things turned bad in the second half – the coding test bit. The interviewer asked me to produce a tiny Winform application that interfaced with SQL Server, demonstrating the basic SQL CRUD operations. The crux was that it had to be done sans internet; there was to be no point of reference. I’ve always been one of those coders who commits no specific functional syntax to memory – I prefer to free up my “Head RAM” for more important logical task crunching.

Thus I was, in short, pretty fucked. I failed the coding test with flying colours – after being left on my own I spent ten minutes considering my options, then called the invigilator back in to explain that I couldn’t do it, and I got up and left with not a single line of code written. I drove home miserable and clogged with self-doubt.

With no work on the table or horizon I panicked, but the fear soon subsided, to be replaced with an urge to act. My prior contracting work had allowed me to gouge a hefty chunk out of my mortgage, so my outgoings were relatively modest. I created a budget spreadsheet, chronicling my typical monthly expenditure, so I could plan my actions. I cancelled my Sky subscription and downgraded my mobile phone contract to the barest minimum. I sold all my DVDs and CDs, and about half my books – ultimately I was to trawl through all my possessions, wheedling out things that could be hawked on Ebay to generate cash on which to live.

Decent work was still hard to come by, so I filled my time with dribbles of paying jobs: installing a replacement keyboard in a laptop, building a little Winforms/Access database system, making various Sage Accounts reports, mowing the lawns (and picking up the accompanying dog shit) of my brother’s rental properties – if it paid then I did it. After months of living off scraps and eroding my savings, in September 2009 a friend’s company asked if I’d build a custom ERP system for them, a project which made my eyes sparkle. The eventual invoice was the best part of £10,000, and I finally accepted that the self-employed life was truly for me, despite its ups and downs.

But pure self-employment wasn’t where I stayed; at the beginning of 2010 I rejoined the food factory. The deal was that if I worked for them for a year – developing new add-ons for my previous systems – the directors would fund a venture to launch a new startup; building factory management software, something in which I was now extremely experienced. But the path of true startup love doesn’t run smooth; progress has been slow (“It takes years to become an overnight success,” is one of my go-to business proverbs, and this probably means we’re not actually a “startup” in the nominally correct sense of the word).

Thus I have had ample need and opportunity to embark on other ventures with which to line my pockets. During the past four and a half years I have launched other businesses, developed other products, beavered on other side-projects, and even found time to re-establish my contract consulting. All of these things run side-by-side, albeit a little clumsily. The ultimate plan is to build several of them to a stage where they can be backgrounded to earn money on autopilot, or flipped and forgotten about. That’s my plan anyway – whether it’ll come to pass is anyone’s guess.

Eleven years later, “Stage 2” of my career vision remains an enigma. I wasn’t one of those fortunate people who instinctively knew their calling in life from a young age, to aim every fibre of their being at it from the very start – I’ve just bumbled along and tried to keep my head above water, and despite making it all up as I go along I seem to be doing OK. Am I wealthy enough to never have to work again, as per my dreams? No. But if I chose to live off my accumulations I could survive for at least 5 years without having to lift a finger. But that’s not me.

I’d love to give this piece of writing an underlying battle cry, to finish it with some pearls of wisdom to bestow, but fuck it: don’t listen to my advice. I’m just another chancer, another wantrepreneur stumbling along in my own little way, trying to carve out a slice of something resembling success, which I can’t even imagine, and don’t think I’ll know when I see it.

Wanting to learn from others’ mistakes is fine, and it’s important to not get lost in trying to learn from others’ successes. Time is better spent doing, discovering, unearthing and sculpting knowledge, chopping your own path, learning your own lessons, making your own mistakes, and making your own good advice. Most of all, I’m glad I embraced the things I never intended to do, because, in the fullness of time, all my accidents were somehow done on purpose, and led me to where I am now.

Ultimately: I’m where I am today because I didn’t try to get here.