Why have one career when you could have three? You certainly couldn’t accuse Andy McAleer (Chemistry 1985, PhD 1989) of getting stuck in a rut after graduating from Imperial.

After studying Chemistry at Imperial, Andy enjoyed ten years at Exxon as a research chemist, before retraining as a technical writer and becoming involved in the first foray into smartphone technology.

Onto the next chapter, Andy currently works as a technical copywriter in financial services, documenting innovations created by FinTech start-ups.

As we catch up with Andy about his achievements and career so far, he shares some fond memories about his time at the College – featuring badminton tours, cycling challenges, and discovering his love of classical music.

A personal and professional education

Andy credits his time at Imperial for helping him to find his self-confidence and provide a depth of experience that has put him in good stead for his career, which was particularly beneficial when he first interviewed for Exxon.

“It was the way I was able to explain to them what was going on - my communication skills, the enthusiasm I showed and the ideas I had when I was doing my PhD, that’s what really counted. Imperial taught me all that – so not just how to do experiments, but how to critically think and how to be open to new ideas.”

It was his creative thinking that cemented Andy’s place in the collaborative team at Exxon, working with new chemicals and on exciting projects, such as exploring the most effective way to soak up oil spills. Within a few months of joining, his team was researching scientific responses to the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska and collaborating with US colleagues on new chemistries.

Finding new careers

Andy describes working for Exxon as a wonderful first job for any budding research chemist and credits it for being a “great way of making connections with experts across the world.”

After ten years at Exxon within an innovative and savvy team, Andy made the decision to leave behind the culture of blue sky thinking and explore a different career path.

Despite retraining not being common at the time, he felt that pursuing something new was exactly what he needed. He saw obvious value in a job for life in a large organisation, but really wanted to use more of his talents and enthusiasm for technology and communication. The emergent dot-com boom of the late 1990s seemed like a great opportunity to do just that, and Andy decided on a new career as a technical writer...  

Revisiting education and retraining

After going back into education at London South Bank University, where he gained an MSc in technical communication, Andy found himself amongst the first people to explore user experience and writing in the nascent smartphone industry.

“It was 1999 and smartphones were still new. All these big mobile networks knew the infrastructure was out there but didn’t know how to use it. So, they set up a team to research the capabilities and opportunities in the most amazing way. My role was to develop the text that went on screen to help people use the new apps. I can look back now and know that I was involved in that first step to getting where we are with the smartphone user experience of today.”

Thinking back fondly on his 17 years as a technical writer, working through the ranks and varying job titles in the software development industry, Andy summarises it as a time where he was working with "devastatingly bright developers" driving advances we benefit from today.

“That phase of my career was helping people understand and use new technology, whether it was new technology in their hands (in the form of smartphones) or new technology that companies were developing for B2C or B2B use cases.”

Points scored in badminton

Andy valued his time spent at Imperial and credits a full and fun social calendar to the friends that he made in the College’s Badminton Club.

Training and playing against teams from across London, he took part in various competitions including the British Universities & Colleges Sport Championships (BUCS) and is still close friends with his teammates today. The club also presented opportunities for travel to Germany and Denmark.

An altogether tougher sporting challenge took the form of a bet with his Chemistry colleagues:

“During my PhD, four of us were musing one day about whether we could cycle to the south of France and back again in two weeks, but one of our friends didn’t think it was possible. So, we decided in summer break to do it! We hired two tandems and the four of us set off on this crazy journey from London to the south of France and back again. It was so exhausting. All we were doing for 24 hours a day was eating, sleeping, and cycling – mostly cycling!”

Finding new passions

Another great love Andy discovered at Imperial was classical music and he remembers what it was like to be an audience member at BBC Proms, an event he still returns to today.

“I love classical music and that partly started by attending The Proms, paying hardly anything for great music and seeing great recitals every year, which I still do. Having that on your doorstep was amazing.”

This coming together of science and the arts was something that Andy really enjoyed, and the balance helped to nurture his creative side.

“We formed friends with musicians at other educational establishments and that made me feel like we were part of something bigger than just a bubble of scientists. Living in South Kensington for my last four years with scientists upstairs and musicians downstairs - it was a great time being immersed in both the arts and sciences.”

And Andy still finds time today to tootle on his clarinet.

Shaping the future of tech today

Andy is now in the next evolution of his career and currently works in financial services as a technical copywriter alongside “technology wizards” who are creating and supporting an ecosystem of FinTech start-ups. It was a natural jump from software development to financial services because modern financial services organisations are really technology companies at heart. Next, Andy will be thinking about retirement.

Describing the industry as a “welcoming community with lots of energy and disruptive thinking”, Andy is enthusiastic about the collaborative nature of the financial services sector.

Finally, we asked Andy what advice he would give to budding entrepreneurs looking to find their feet in fast-paced technology?

“Learn from others as there’s a lot out there to pick up. Keep thinking about your product, keep thinking about the idea, keep thinking about what makes something unique and the benefits of it. This is the key to your success – finding uniqueness”

Andy’s story and experiences are grounded in his time at Imperial, where he found himself growing as a well-rounded person with an appreciation for both science and art.

For current students, Andy adds:

"Use your time at Imperial to both develop intellectually but also experience life – because that’s just as important as your qualification and your scientific or engineering know-how."

Andy’s courage to continue embracing change in his own life – and his desire to never stop learning, is an inspiration to his fellow alumni and the wider College community alike.

Connect with Andy on LinkedIn here