Opportunities – How do you make them?

My career in enterprise software got started thanks to an ex-girlfriend.

In my early twenties I wasn’t quite sure what path I would take, however, I knew I wanted to be in high tech. It was the early 90s and I was studying business at university. I had put myself through school thanks to years of working in a bike (pedal bikes) shop. It is at the bike shop that I learned the importance of customer service, differentiation in value, and commitment to delivery and quality. My bike shop years were formative. I did sales, accounting, inventory management, service, and any task needed to keep the business going. It was a passion, a career, and a family. I applied myself as if it were my own business. Despite the passion for bikes, I didn’t see a prosperous future. In 2nd year of university I bought a computer and started learning as much as possible about software, business applications, and about how to install, configure, and exploit the software. I clicked on every button, experimented with everything I could get my hands on… but the programming and coding side of software never interested me. At least it never stuck.

I was attracted by the newness, the business value, and the transformational potential for business and people. I remember doing a presentation at university about the potential of the Internet before we had web-browsers. I felt the world was about to change.

A few months after graduation an ex-girlfriend’s father called me. Luckily my relationship with my ex was good as the split was amicable. She wouldn’t put up with any crap, had ambition, and a huge heart. But it wasn’t working for either of us.

The offer was to join a new software division in an international enterprise software firm. The firm signed a lucrative contract with a global customer that bought the software to be deployed in several countries across the globe. The firm needed people to train the customer’s staff in all these countries. They were putting a team of eight trainers together to deliver all the training in four months, from December 1994 to March 1995.

My ex-girlfriend’s father remembered me even though we only met once at a networking dinner. I’m not sure exactly what resonated with him or why he called but I must have impressed him enough to remember me, as I was the only recent graduate he called. The rest of the team was made of up seasoned trainers who had been in the business for at least 5 years.

Prior to this phone call from my ex-girlfriend’s father I had not imagined doing software training as my next steps into a high tech career. I was working for the university in my home city in the IT department as a buyer. The university was transforming the entire backbone to a fibre-optic network, connecting all the offices across the campus via a LAN/WAN/Internet network. I negotiated contracts with all the suppliers to provide cabling, software, hardware, and any other bits necessary to transform the campus into a modern “networked” university connected to the Internet. Being a higher-education institution there wasn’t much negotiating to do. We had the best higher-education discounts from all the suppliers. I processed orders, and waited for items to collect so that we can get bulk discounts. Even though it was in the high tech space, I could have been processing orders for car parts or lumber. In other words, I wasn’t really learning about the industry and the value other than what I picked up from my colleagues who designed the LAN/WAN upgrade and any reading I did at lunch or after hours.

However, one thing I learned early was the power of the network I was building. When I got the call from my ex’s father I immediately called around my network and asked if anyone could get me a copy of the software or the manuals so that I could learn as much as possible before the first interview. Within days the manuals arrived and I read them cover-to-cover. When I arrived at my first interview I placed the software manuals on the table and told them everything I knew about the software and why I thought it was fascinating and how users will get a lot of value out of the software. I got the job offer the next day.

It was a fascinating experience. I travelled for four months solid across the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. I trained people how to use software in New York City, Washington DC, Buffalo, Paris, Lisbon, Cairo, Riyadh, Damascus Syria, Istanbul, Ankara, Belgrade, and Tel Aviv. These four months were foundational in my view on the world and were vital to my career trajectory. They opened my eyes to a global landscape, multiple cultures, and to how beautiful people are everywhere. It allowed me to embrace a global culture and to jump at opportunities to live in new locations. At present I’m living in Paris, France but started my life in Canada.

I’ve never really looked back or felt I had to create a CV since 1994. I still have a CV but all the opportunities that have landed on my lap have come from my network, from doing good and earnest work, and making allies and enduring friendships in the industry. I passed many opportunities down and jumped on only a few. There is only one mistake I made and quickly got out of that opportunity after about three months. Other than that experience I’ve more or less been with each employer five years, seven years, and ten years respectively. I don’t jump around much and believe in building an enduring and meaningful contribution to each employer. In the enterprise software market it takes two to three years to create, launch and watch a product stick in the market. It takes around the same amount of time for customers to get full value from the software in production. You either rise or fail with the decisions you made two to three years ago. Commitment, resolve, and willingness to learn, adapt and be agile to respond to the market are what make a meaningful contribution and a rewarding career.

So do you make your own opportunities or do they land on your lap?

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