Several sigmas from the mean

I was asked by the ‘development’ (ie fundraising) staff at my old college to write something about my unusual career for their alumni blog. I’m guessing the request was made because I’m such an outlier from the bulk of their usual graduates. These guys are acutely scholastic but ultra conformist…you have to be, to gain the required grades for entry.

Anyway, I was surprised and impressed that they agreed to publish this:

In many ways I envy those who’ve always known that they were destined to become partners in international law firms, diplomats or merchant bankers. My career has had no such sustained focus. Eight years ago, at the last of countless job interviews, I was accused of ‘… having only done those things which interested (me).’ I got the job, but had to agree that this interpretation of my random-walk CV was pretty accurate.

Driven by the urge to please parents, a dearth of self-determination, the need to eat and a pathologically low boredom threshold, I have tried a number of different directions. These have included becoming Britain’s first web architect, earning a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, managing an MP employed as a salesman, running a business from internet cafés in Canada, failing two different degrees in computing, advising numerous start-up founders, being sacked several times (once by fax, which ages me), working at universities from Tallinn to Stanford, blogging commercially, and developing some clever software (

At St John’s, I quickly came to accept that I was a mediocre scholar and a glacially slow learner. I’d like to express my heartfelt thanks, however, to Dr Tom Hynes who stepped in to help when my friend and supervisor Fergus Campbell (Fellow of St John’s) was taken ill and died. It was at this time that I had my first brush with the patents system and was recognised by one College Fellow as ‘having ideas incompatible with (my) status as a research student.’ Although not intended as helpful, this comment was actually perceptive and I have since turned having such ideas into an unconventional career.

It began when I was forced to acknowledge that, as an employee, I wasn’t earning enough to afford even a modest midlife crisis sports car. My wife reminded me that I seemed to generate a continuous stream of often viable product ideas. I thus became an inventor (although product developer is my more usual title, since inventors are inexplicably seen as hard to deal with). For the next seven years, I published one new product idea per day, partly as a protest against our silly, unaffordable, IP system and partly as an advert for this unusual skill. It’s easy to overlook talents that don’t get measured by our education system.

I now greatly enjoy running a small company that works to license new product designs and technologies in the US. If you’re unwise enough to drink coffee from a machine in California, there is a good chance that I designed the internal mechanism. Should you find yourself with wet feet on board a yacht, it may be my self-priming bilgepump design that is to blame. Gas piped to your home may depend in some small way on the explosive burst tests I have undertaken on hoses in the North Sea (‘Stand well back – Norway should be ok’).

With my track record, I wouldn’t presume to give anyone advice, but the message is that it’s quite legitimate to recognise your real abilities – even if they don’t form the basis of any traditional syllabus.