Working Outside The Box

As part of my current job search, I have been thinking about what potential employers think of my careers.  That’s not a typo, I really meant careers in the plural.  Just look at my CV and I’m sure you’ll agree that my working life has spanned more than a single area of experience, which is what I think is the principal element defining “a career”.

So I started out with a career in the aerospace industry, having graduated from the Engineering Science program at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering with a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Science (a.k.a. Engineering), having majored in Aerospace Engineering.  I had a good career, starting right out of school working in the aerodynamic design department at de Havilland Aircraft of Canada, where I worked on the development of the DHC-8 “DASH8” commuter airliner.  I still feel a great sense of accomplishment and pride when I see one flying overhead.  From there I went to MBB Helicopter Canada (now Eurocopter Canada) where I worked on the aerodynamic design and performance analysis of light-utility helicopters.  That, however, was an inauspicious time to be working in the helicopter manufacturing business, as the economy went through a downturn and helicopter sales, if you’ll pardon the expression, took a nose-dive.

As a result, I ended up – like a lot of people in the business – out of work.  Now during my career in the aircraft industry, I had gained a lot of experience with computers and programming – I had always been strong in that area from high school on through my university education, but to that natural aptitude I had added much practical experience.  So, looking at the state of the aircraft industry and foreseeing a long recovery period ahead, I decided to make a career change and sought out a position in software development.

I was fortunate, and found a position at Hostess Frito-Lay Canada (the company is now just called Frito-Lay Canada) as a Programmer/Analyst which used the skills with Cognos 4GL tools that I had acquired in developing custom Budget vs Actual reports for the Program Management Office at Eurocopter.

Following that, I moved to the pharmaceutical sector, but still in the IT field as a Senior Analyst in the IT department of what was then Pasteur Mérieux Connaught (it has since been through a number of changes, from Aventis Pasteur to the current Sanofi Pasteur).  I continued gaining experience in business systems analysis there while working on an SAP implementation.  After that successfully launched, I was elevated to the position of Project Manager and subsequently was selected to manage a global Documentum EDMS (Electronic Document Management System) implementation project, based at the company’s headquarters in France.

During the four years I worked on the project, I lived in France, so in addition to gaining experience in Project Management, I also learned about bridging cultures – both corporate and national – because the implementation team was spread over three countries: France, the USA and Canada.  Each site had its own corporate and local business and regulatory requirements to satisfy, and each nationality had its own culturally influenced point of view and way of communicating.  I suspect part of the reason I was selected over candidates from the French and US IT departments was the reputation Canadians have for being good intermediaries between diverse cultures – and I believe that I lived up to that stereotype.

After returning to Canada once the EDMS was in production, a reorganization of the IT departments in the North American sites left me looking for a new job.  And that ended up with me moving on to my third career, as the Manager of Customer Care and eBusiness at an engineered products manufacturing company, ASCO Valve Canada (a subsidiary of the US based ASCO Valve).  There, I was responsible for managing a group of Customer Service Representatives and Inside Sales Technicians.

That role also had me in frequent direct contact with the distributors the company sold to, as well as with colleagues at the parent company and other subsidiaries around the world where we sourced components and finished goods.  I think all my previous experience made me well suited to the role: strong analytical problem solving skills which I used in dealing with supply-chain problems to expedite order shipments; people skills developed working with individuals and teams having diverse levels of technical and business knowledge, as well as cultural and language differences; and experience with arranging the resources needed to achieve an objective.

A management-level reorganization resulted in my departure from the company, and I subsequently returned to a role in my second career of IT Project Management.  I joined a software company that had developed an enterprise-class Learning Management System (LMS), in the role of a Client Project Manager in the company’s Professional Services Organization.  That job again had me in frequent direct contact with clients, managing our internal resources and working with their Project Manager to schedule the implementation steps and the client resources that were needed to support it.

After being in that role for some time, I was asked if I would be interested in an internal transfer to fill an opening in the Product Development division – a Program Manager was required for one of the Product Teams.  That role was partly Project Management and partly personnel management – I had a team of Product Designers, Software Developers and Quality Assurance Analysts reporting to me.  I still had some direct client contact, which was not the case for the other Program Managers in Product Development – the team I was in charge of had done some custom work for one specific client, and I took on the role of managing the ongoing work being done for them.

That job ended recently, and I am now looking for a new one.  If you are looking to fill a position that my skills, strengths and experience would suit, let me know via the comments and I’ll get in contact so we can have a conversation about it.

But enough about my careers, at this point, I’d like to ask you about yours: whether you have had one linear career or multiple careers – closely related or wildly diverse – what has your experience been like?  Have you had opportunities to grow (both personally and professionally) and stay interested within one career, or did you find it necessary to change careers to continue growing personally/professionally and maintain a strong interest in what you were doing?  What upsides/downsides did your particular career path result in?

For me, I have been fortunate that whether the change in career was a deliberate choice (switching from aerodynamics engineering to IT) or serendipitous (having the right combination of skills and experience to manage a Customer Care group) I have had lots of opportunities to grow, both personally and professionally, and plenty of things to keep me interested. There have been downsides as well, in that starting fresh has sometimes meant coming into a role at a salary lower than what I might have been at by staying on a single career path.

Please tell me about your own experience in the comments to this post, I’d love to hear what you have to share with me.

Oh, and the reason for the post’s title – well, much has been said about “thinking outside the box” as a way to break out of past models of behaviour in order to make progress.  Since there has also been a lot of talk about multiple careers being the new norm, replacing the old one linear career model it seemed appropriate to paraphrase and say that many of us are now “working outside the box”.

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