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Things Ian Says

Letter to my Younger Self

Dear Ian,

You are sitting there uncertain about your future direction, trying to decide what your next step should be. You have doubts about what you should be doing and whether you are able to do it. Just remember that there is no single path to follow, you will have a variety of different jobs through your career and things will usually work out okay.

To help you as you go, here is some advice I (and therefore you) have picked up along the way …

Lesson 1: Be Yourself — That is Enough

Remember that you are a unique person, crafted through your experiences as you go through life. It is this uniqueness which makes you successful — embrace it, don’t try to hide it.

When you joined Accenture as an experienced hire, you came from a small web company with a very different culture. Nearly every other experienced hire you met had joined from a large consultancy or a large business and seemed to already know how to work within this style of organisation. You found the first couple of months a real struggle (and thought about quitting many times) as you tried to adopt the behaviour you thought was needed at a large consultancy.

Then one day, you thought “they hired me because of what I had achieved previously, because of who I am”. At that point, you decided to be yourself and stop trying to be what you thought an Accenture consultant was.

From that point onwards, you found the job much less of a struggle, and built your career successfully here.

That was an important lesson for you — recognise that your uniqueness is what allows you to add value. An organisation is successful because of a diverse set of unique people, not because of a legion of identical people.

Lesson 2: Grasp Opportunities

One day, the head of your department will call you into their office and tell you that he is about to go on holiday. He will then go on to say that due to an oversight, his second in command is also going on holiday at the same time. He therefore wants you to be the person on point for any issues that may arise within the department while they are away. He says he will arrange to give you access to the company’s bank account. He will then ask you if you are happy to take this on.


You will face several situations like this through your career — where someone offers you an opportunity far ahead of what you are currently doing. They are opportunities to be grasped; a step up or stretch opportunity. You will find that each time you take an opportunity like this, your career can take a leap forward.

You will, however, need to conquer your fears and doubts to be able to accept these opportunities — “what if I can’t do it”. For this, I find it helps to think in the following way …

The person who is offering you the opportunity believes you will be successful in this opportunity — that is why they are offering it to you. They have more experience of offering this sort of opportunity than you do in accepting them. They are putting their reputation on the line by offering you the opportunity (if you fail, then they fail). If they think you can do this, with all their experience, then you should believe that too.

Lesson 3: Don’t Learn Stuff You Can Look Up

You live in a time when there is a wealth of information available to you, pretty much wherever you are. This means you don’t have to memorise things you can easily look up. You don’t need to memorise the order of parameters in that function, you don’t need to memorise the command to start up a new deployment in Kubernetes, you don’t need to memorise the structure for creating an AngularJS module. Just look them up.

Here’s my guilty secret — whenever I want to delete a git branch, I have to Google the command to do it. Even though I’ve done this 100s of times.

Instead of learning these things, improve your ability to find things in Google and Stack Overflow. Add reminders to OneNote. Add snippets to your editor. Create scripts to easily do repeated activities.

Take the time this saves you to learn generic, reusable things, for example understand the principles of programming which can be applied to any programming language you use (and then Google the syntax).

But do learn vim.

Lesson 4: Give Opportunities Forward

You won’t be able to get on without hard work, but remember also that there is an element of luck and opportunity in there too. You will be able to think of people you know who were cleverer than you, who worked as hard as you, but didn’t get your opportunities or your luck. These people ended up in unsatisfying jobs, were unemployed or worse.

You should recognise the opportunities you had and give that forward. When I talked earlier about grasping opportunities, you should also make sure you repay the debt by giving others opportunities to take hold of.

Lesson 5: Listen to People’s Lived Experience

You should realise that you have advantages in life because you are a white, straight man and that this eases your way through life. The wealth of social media now available means that it is easier than ever to listen to the experiences of diverse people and gain understanding and empathy. So follow diverse people on Twitter, listen to diverse podcasts, read diverse blogs.

Listen to what is said in those places, understand the challenges faced and learn how you can help with change. At the same time, don’t be disruptive …

Don’t move the discussion to centre on your identity (don’t say “This doesn’t just happen to women, something similar happened to me as a man”).

Don’t derail the discussions with irrelevancies (this is not the right place to quibble about whether a quoted number is really 10% or 12%).

Don’t contradict someone’s lived experiences with something you read in a newspaper one time.

And so, in conclusion …

Believe in yourself and believe in other people when they believe in you, and you’ll do just fine. Take those opportunities when they are offered to you, and learn from them. Give people opportunities, encourage diversity in your team, and provide an inclusive working environment — it’s not just the right thing to do, but your team will achieve better outcomes.