Nigel Simpson (Director, Technology Strategy & Research, The Walt Disney Company) explains some of his career lessons since graduating from Imperial
I graduated from Imperial College with a degree in Computing Science in 1985. Although my Imperial education set me up for a successful career in technology, it didn’t make me an “influential technologist”. I didn’t have the business skills to know how to sell my ideas or how to drive technical change in an organization. I had to figure them out on my own over many years. Here are a few career lessons I learned the hard way:
When you’re looking for a job you’ll spend a lot of time reading job descriptions, and many of these will seem to rule you out as a candidate. The job I applied for at Disney was an example of this; I really didn’t think I was qualified but I applied anyway. Much to my surprise, I got the job. When I asked why they hired me, I found out that what they were really looking for in a candidate wasn’t written in the job description!
A job description describes an ideal candidate that doesn’t exist - it’s a wish list. No hiring manager expects to find someone who’s an exact fit. Your mission is to read between the lines and find out what the employer is really looking for. In the case of my Disney job, they were looking for an experienced technologist who could drive change in a highly technical environment. I have those skills. If only they’d listed them in the job description!
Another thing to remember is that interviewing is like dating. You and the employer are both looking to see if there’s a basis for a long-term relationship. An interview works both ways; they’re interviewing you, but you should be interviewing them in return. I’ve turned down many job offers where I didn’t get a good feeling about the person I’d be working for or the company culture. Life’s too short to work for bad bosses and toxic company cultures!
Make your job the one you want
I’ve been a passenger on my career train. It has taken me to some interesting places, and when it’s hit the end of the line, I just got on another train. I never started with a career plan or mapped out what I’d like to be doing in five, ten, or twenty years.
It’s taken me years to realize that I can actually lay down my own train tracks and go wherever I want to. And the best way to get the job you want is to start doing it!
Let me explain...
If you see an interesting opportunity to make things better, either by fixing something that’s broken, or finding a new way to solve a problem, don’t ask for permission, just go do it. No manager is going to punish an employee for taking initiative, and if they do, well, do you really want them as a boss? So, find opportunities to grow your skills, take on new responsibilities, and make a difference.
This doesn’t mean that you should stop doing what you were hired to do, but you can start turning your job into one you really want. The first thing you need to do is figure out how to demonstrate success. That depends on what your manager and organization consider important. Here are some ways that leaders measure success:
Choose the best approach for the leader you work for.
Don’t be afraid to write your own job description either. If the job you’re doing isn’t aligned with what you want to do, write your own job description and have a conversation with your manager. A good leader will help you achieve your career goals. The last thing they want to have to do is find someone to replace you when you leave.
The Experience Dilemma
When you’re starting your career, there’ll be a lot of jobs you’d love to do but not many that you’re qualified for. You’re experience-limited. As you gain experience, the number of jobs you’re qualified for increases. By mid-career you’ll have a lot of experience and a lot of jobs you could do. If you’re investing in learning new things, your job opportunity pool will continue to grow, but at some point, the list of jobs you actually want to do, and the types of companies you want to work for, starts to narrow. You’re reaching the peak of the “jobs you want to do” pyramid! Sitting on the top of that pyramid is the unicorn job – the perfect job.
I’m lucky to have found my unicorn job at Disney. I get to work on things that interest me, with people I like working with, and for a company that I love.
Unicorn jobs are rare, so what do you do if you can’t find it? The best way to find a unicorn job is to make your own. If you have a vision of something you want to do, then build a company around it. You can become an entrepreneur at any point in your career.
You can also restart your career at any point by starting over. A former colleague of mine quit a successful technology career to found a chocolate company. It’s not easy to do this because you’ll be starting at the bottom of the experience pyramid, but there’s where we learn most, and rather than being frightening, it can be exhilarating!
Experience is a great teacher, but there are some career skills that are worth knowing before setting out on your journey. Here’s a summary of the skills covered in this article:
- Interviewing is dating – you’re building a relationship, make it a happy one.
- You’re in control of your career train, lay down your own train tracks!
- ABLE: Always Be Learning – new skills open new doors of opportunity
- Challenge yourself by applying for stretch jobs – you might get one!
- Learn how to communicate your ideas and your success.
Enjoy your journey and come back to Imperial with stories to tell the next generation of graduates!
Director, Technology Strategy & Research
The Walt Disney Company
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