University of Canberra Keynote Speech: 7 Pathways to Learning

In November last year, I was invited to be the Keynote speaker for the University of Canberra’s School of Information Technology and Systems’ Capstone Project Expo (yes, what an event title!).

I was asked to speak about my career to provide inspiration for the next generation. And so, I chose to speak about what I called, the “7 Pathways to Learning.”

I had a lot of great feedback from the audience later. So, here’s a copy of the speech which will hopefully be of use to others.

7 Pathways to Learning

Thank you to Dean Deakin and Dr. Imran for the invitation to speak today. I’m honoured to be here.

I was asked to speak about my career, and I will talk about parts of it. However, if you want to see a more detailed profile, I encourage you to follow and connect with me on Linkedin.

Instead, today I want to share what I call the “7 Pathways to Learning,” using some stories from my career as an example.

Learning Pathway #1: Formal Education

In May this year ,I was on a plane from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. There beside me in our business class seats, was a well-dressed man. He was probably in his mid to late twenties.And, by his appearance and bravado, I think he was probably a professional athlete.

He acted like I should know who he was. Sorry, I didn’t

At some point during the flight, he looked towards me and asked me what book I was reading. It was this one, the Almanac of Naval Ravaneck, a silicon valley tech entrepreneur and investor. Amongst the many companies he started was Angelist. If you haven’t heard about it, look it up.

When I showed him this book, he replied, almost proudly, “I haven’t read a book since I left university.”

I sat quietly, almost startled and replied eventually,” I’m sorry to hear that.”

I turned back to my book and didn’t say another word to him for the rest of the flight. I was saddened, by the fact that, here, was an obviously successful young man who has decided to quit learning

You see, from my experience, it will just be a matter of time before his success will end because of this.

Today is a celebration of the end of formal education for many of you.

What I call Learning Pathway #1. But I certainly hope it’s not your last day, to learn.

My Formal Education

Nearly 25 years ago, I was sitting in a similar seat as you as I finished my MBA from Cornell University in New York.

That’s right… I don’t have an IT degree. Instead, I have two in business.

And had I stepped away from that Ivy League education without learning anything more, I would not be here in front of you today. Because formal education only provides you with the foundational knowledge to get you started.

And indeed, it gives you a head start against people like me.

Learning Pathway #2: On-the-job training

This leads me to my first real job after graduation. I became a lieutenant in the US Air Force.

Despite my many career options, even in the military, I chose to be a procurement officer, so that I could use my business education.

For the next few years, I spent most of my time taking contract law classes and learning how to buy products and services, the government way.

The rule books were literally this thick.

And while it wasn’t a career field I wanted to do forever, the skills I learned there helped me… even today. In fact, just last week, I wrote another contract.

Proving you can also learn through on-the-job training or what I call…Learning Pathway #2 – On-the-job Training.

Learning Pathway #3: Self-Help

After leaving the Air Force, I decided to move from supporting wars to making peace as I joined the Peace Corps as a Business & IT volunteer in the Cape Verde islands of W. Africa.

While there, I saw needs that no one else could meet. So, I decided to figure out how to solve these problems.

Unfortunately, the internet was often unreliable there. So, I asked my parents to send me some books. And from those books, I learned how to build websites and databases for several organisations while there.

Proving you can learn new skills through Learning Pathway #3 – Self Help as those books, and trial and error helped me to do.

Learning Pathway #4: Hustle

After the Peace Corps, I landed in Washington, D.C. It was the year, 2000, the same year that the dot-com bubble burst. Not a great time to find a new job.

But finally… after four months of searching, an unusual opportunity came up at the Goddard Space Flight Centre aka NASA. The original job was for the project manager of a new Aircraft Logistics software implementation.

I was completely honest with the hiring manager. “I know nothing about IT.”

However, he was convinced that I could do the work, and I needed a job. So I said yes.

This was the “official start” of my IT career.

But, not everything goes to plan. The Aircraft Logistics project they hired me for was cancelled due to funding changes. Fortunately, I must have shown them enough hustle and eagerness to be useful. Because they asked me if I wanted to move to another project.

The new project turned out to be, not just the original SAP implementation project for NASA, but the very first off-the-shelf software implementation for the entire US federal government.

Throughout my time there, I wore many hats. None, I was qualified to do.

In fact, I can still remember my first project meeting. I essentially sat in silence and took lots of notes. Afterwards, I went to Google and looked up all the words and phrases I didn’t understand.

I had pages!

But two years later, I had an SAP implementation on my resume. This proved you could learn and start a new career path, even if you are utterly unqualified for the job…through what I call Learning Pathway #4 – Hustle.

Learning Pathway #5: Surrounding yourself with really smart people

About five years later, I came to Australia and immediately started working for an international IT company.

My first project was to help Defence outsource the application development of their Peoplesoft system using an ITIL framework. I had no knowledge of Peoplesoft, application development processes or ITIL.

And yet, I figured it out.

My roles over time became more senior until I was the Regional Manager of an Australian IT company. Now, I was writing proposals in response to RFTs, instead of asking for them.

The range of software solutions and services I had to understand was huge. I wrote about BI, ERPs, TOGAF, GUIs, ISO, ETL, UAT and APIs.

You know what all these things are, but I was pretty clueless then. Luckily, I was surrounded by some of the smartest people I’ve ever met.

So, I soaked up the information in meetings and reviewed previous projects and proposals others wrote.

Proving, that you can continue to learn through Pathway #5 – Surrounding yourself with people smarter than you.

Learning Pathway #6: Asking lots of dumb questions

Then, about eight years ago, a completely new opportunity came my way, and I became the CEO of RSPCA ACT here in Canberra.

Now, how many of you grew up didn’t grow up in Australia? For those of you who do not know, RSPCA is an animal welfare charity that helps save and rehome animals.

I knew a lot about finances and marketing and even IT now, but I knew very little about animals.

Luckily, my team was full of experts in this space. So, I asked lots… and lots… and lots of what some people might call dumb questions. Like…

  • How many times can a cat get pregnant in a year?
  • What’s a body score for a starving animal?
  • Why has that bird lost all its feathers
  • And why did Chris the Sheep have so much wool?

If you don’t know who Chris the Sheep is, by the way, Google him.

And by asking all these dumb questions, not only were we able to turn the organisation around financially, but to also achieve some of the highest animal welfare rehoming statistics in the country.

Proving that you could learn new skills through what I call Learning Pathway #6 – Asking lots of dumb questions.

Learning Pathway #7: Teaching Others

This leads me to today. I’ve combined my IT knowledge, procurement training and charity experience to form my own business. And now, I help Not for Profits make IT investment decisions.

What makes the Not for Profit sector unique is that most are resource constraint and under-skilled when it comes to IT.

So, when I started working with them, I made it a point to avoid consulting speak and to only use plain English.

In fact, on my website and podcast, I have an entire segment called, “IT in Plain English”, where I explain the most basic concepts like a firewall, the cloud or SEO – all in plain English, so that my clients can make better, informed decisions.

And I’m always surprised by how much I learn when I have to break these terms into more simple concepts for them, proving you can learn through Learning Pathway #7: Teaching Others.


You would think after twenty-something years in IT that, I know a lot more now and can reduce my learning needs. But the Learning Pathways are not sequential, and neither should they ever end. They repeat.

This industry is constantly changing. And because I cover the entire enterprise architecture from the business layer down to the security, I am constantly learning to ensure I can provide my clients with the best advice.

In fact, I’ve taken over 100 hours of formal coursework in the last six months alone.

One final story

I want to share one final story with you.

While I was at RSPCA, I was asked to help with one of the journalism courses at a university. They asked me to do a mock press conference for their students.

At the time, the cat containment laws, here in the ACT (Australian Capital Territory), were being considered. And therefore, I was already doing a lot of real press around this topic.

Students were told to take photos with their phones and to ask me questions.

Before we began, I gave them RSPCA’s and my social media handles and told them to tag us whenever they posted.

I suspect hundreds of photos were taken that morning. But do you know how many students tagged me or RSPCA on social media afterwards?

Absolutely Zero.

Why? Because these students saw this exercise as an assignment. It never occurred to them that a media event was actually taking place at that very moment, and they didn’t need a degree to participate in it in real life.

They failed to realise that Learning =  Knowledge + Application.

Last words

Now, very soon, you are all walking away with degrees in your hand, and that degree provides you with a slight advantage… now.

But don’t forget that there are other ways to learn. My career is an example of that.

So, as you leave UC, I encourage you to consider the following:

  • The 7 Pathways to Learning
  • Remember that Learning =  Knowledge + Application
  • And to never stop learning – like that man I met on that plane earlier this year.

For your bright future is not only based on what you have done so far… but what you continue to learn every day.

Thank you.

Sharpening the saw

Sharpening the Saw

Stephen Covey used the illustration of sharpening the Saw in his book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” His premise was that it was more valuable to spend time sharpening the saw periodically than trying to chop down the tree with a blunt blade, which would take longer.

As a consultant, it’s common to have gaps between major projects. When this happened at other consulting companies I worked for in the past, I was forced to come into the office the next day despite working 80-hour weeks for months. It was one reason why I tended to burn out at jobs.

Now that I control my time, I find the Sharpening the Saw concept applicable for learning, but I also find it useful for rest and recovery, knowing how hard I work when I have a major project. So, I’ve adopted this approach with my newest business, Roundbox Consulting.

Sharpening the Saw this time:

With this current major project gap, this is how I sharpened my saw.

  • Visited family in the US (which I haven’t been able to see for three years because of Covid).
  • Spent extra time with friends around Australia.
  • Attended an in-person conference and two virtual ones for software vendors.
  • Began an online course with UC Berkley.
  • Hired a new strength coach to help me with my fitness goals.
  • Documented some processes for the podcast to help me eventually delegate more work to others.
  • Finished my marketing plans for the year with a supporting budget.
  • Read many books / listened to podcasts to help my business.
  • Investigated some new software, specifically around notes and research.
  • Prepared for the final closure of The Refoundry so that I can finally focus on Roundbox full time.
  • Created lots and lots of new content to help with SEO.

This list is not exhaustive, but it represents what “Sharpening the Saw” looks like for me personally when I execute it well. I may not always have such long gaps between major projects, but my goal is not to waste that time whenever I do.

What would “Sharpening the Saw” look like for you?

5 year rule

Five year rule

I love this quote below by James Clear that’s aligned with my five year rule.

“Most big, deeply satisfying accomplishments in life take at least five years to achieve. Five years is a long time. It is much slower than most of us would like. If you accept the reality of slow progress, you have every reason to take action today. If you resist the reality of slow progress, five years from now you’ll simply be five years older and still looking for a shortcut.”

Five years has always felt like an eternity for me. I’ve never stayed in a job that long. For a while, I moved to different cities (and often countries) every 2-3 years. And, I haven’t had a business make it to Year 4 (yet!). However, something is changing for me as I get older and wiser.

When I look back at those things that mattered the most, it truly did take years to achieve anything. Most of my closest friendships are at least a decade long. I built my career on top of 6 years of business school education. And I’ve had opportunities to paddle around the world because of many years of training.

At the time, I took those time investments for granted. However, today it’s become clear to me that if you want to start anything new and actually become good at it, you shouldn’t begin unless you’re willing to commit five years. It’s a rule I’ve started incorporated into my life because I know how easily I get distracted by shiny new ideas and opportunities.

With this in mind, I started learning Spanish again, and four years later I’m not yet fluent but getting closer. I started playing guitar during our last Covid lock-down and then realised it would take years to gain the dexterity in my fingers to hit the cords. I didn’t want to commit that time, so I donated my guitar to a charity.

This new rule also relates to my career and business. A few years ago, I would have dropped what I was doing for the next best job opportunity or business idea that came along. Now, I’m very committed to seeing my current consulting practice grow.

And to be clear, quitting something early is not breaking the rule when you know that it’s the right thing to do. The five year rule is more about the decision to start new things. So, if you’re someone like me that’s easily distracted with the next shiny opportunity, consider incorporating this rule into your life and see real achievements emerge.

End of business sale

Pulling the plug

After failing to do my last market for Harvestcare on Sunday because I couldn’t authenticate my credit card machine, I’m pulling the plug on the business now to meet the EOFY closure deadline I gave myself.

So, today I sent an email to all my stockists and offered to sell the remaining stock for a huge bargain. Anything left over, I’ll give to family and friends. I’ve also posted some equipment and packaging inventory for sale on my local market stallholder’s Facebook page.

After contemplating this decision to close the business for so long, it now feels like a mad rush. But I know it’s truly time to end this chapter so I can fully jump into Roundbox Consulting. It just feels a bit bitter, not bittersweet. 🙁

Ever have a Saturday like this?

Ever have a day that starts out great and ends so badly? My rookie mistake yesterday was so dumb, that it was time to bring out the margaritas.

  • Spanish class with Fernanda
  • Wrote blog post
  • Canoe Polo training
  • Stopped by the local volunteering expo to scope potential guests for the podcast
  • Haircut
  • Updated Harvestcare store pricing on website
  • Went to storage shed and picked up everything for my last Harvestcare markets tomorrow.
  • Checked the battery on my credit card machine and then realised that it wouldn’t authenticate because it’s tied to my old phone. Square customer support is only 9-5 Monday to Friday. F$ck! Drank the rest of the tequila and decided to watch the federal elections.

Balance of purpose and financial sustainability

I spoke to an old friend of mine the other day, and she reminded me of my first business attempt. It was a home health care business where six older adults would live together in a shared, single-family home with a live-in carer. This was essentially the middle ground alternative to the cheaper aged-care facilities and the most expensive, full-time, in-home support.

At the time I was living in Los Angeles where the regulations and experiences around these models were proven, but still new to the rest of the country (and world). Now they are very popular.

My friend asked what happened to that business idea, and I told her the truth. I couldn’t find the balance of purpose and financial sustainability. In that particular market, the majority of existing owners had overseas workers (likely family) acting as caregivers. When I ran the numbers with paying staff fair wages, I couldn’t get the numbers to work unless we could buy the houses for a steal. This was completely impractical during the real estate boom of the early 2000s before the GFC. And so I abandoned the idea after getting licensed because the P&L didn’t make sense.

I’m glad I didn’t press go as it had a lot of financial risk, but I also regret setting up a company structure and investing in the creatives before I had all the numbers as it was a complete waste of time and money.

I did end up pivoting to a different business idea that had a better balance of purpose and financial sustainability, but I had to go through a formal business name change. And all the creatives I had developed including logos for the health care business were useless.

Did I learn my lesson from this business mistake? Honestly, no!

I’m the kind of person that loves the creative part of a start-up. So, I still tend to overthink the branding at the beginning. Then, I get bored with the day to day operations once the real creative part is done. This impacts the potential for real growth because I’m not motivated enough to push through the more financially difficult times.

The only time I’ve been able to get the balance of purpose and financial sustainability right for my own businesses has been when I’ve done consulting work. That’s because every project is so different and it requires creative problem solving. It’s incredibly challenging and mentally stimulating which makes it fun for me (yes, I know I’m weird!).

So, hopefully after my many attempts to create other businesses in the past, I’ve finally learned my lesson and know that consulting is my thing. Any endeavor I do outside of that (like my podcast) has to be related to this work.

Lessons to take from my story:

If you want to start a business, especially one with a strong social mission – don’t be like me! Get the balance of purpose and financial sustainability right from the beginning and know what kind of work motivates you out of bed each day.

Connecting Up Conference

Software Licensing Costs for NFPs

Last week, I attended my first live conference in a very long time. The host was Connecting Up, a Not for Profit (NFP) that helps other NFPs purchase commercial software at discounted (and sometimes free) prices.

I know there are still many NFPs that are unaware of their services. So, if you know an organisation still paying retail prices for software licenses, please send them to their website. 

Why My Calendar Appears Empty

Lately, I’ve set up a number of automations to help me schedule meetings since I no longer use an EA in my current work. There’s nothing worse than going back and forth with a client or a podcast guest when one email with a calendar link can do the job. But now that they can see my availability, I’m conscious that at times my calendar appears empty.

Though, it’s not actually empty. It’s just NOT full of meetings. And in this world where people still think that a schedule full of back to back meetings translates to “important,” this might give them the wrong impression as to my real value.

Yes, I know that I could hide the “emptiness” by reserving work blocks instead. And sometimes I do when I really need uninterrupted work time. In reality though, I really don’t care what others think about my use of time as I know the deep work speaks for itself.

When I was in executive roles, it was not uncommon for my entire calendar to be dictated by other people. And that was usually okay because I could delegate the resulting actions of these meetings to others who had more time.

Today I spend a lot more time actually “doing,” rather than just meeting. It’s wonderful! At least for me because I find the work interesting, and I have more time to think and solve problems.

Still, not everyone is built like me. In fact, I spoke to a friend today, a former CEO as well. She missed the ability to delegate and felt like she was doing a lot of things she didn’t enjoy doing now in her entrepreneurial work.

Yet, despite all this, I bet that even she appreciates that her calendar appears empty, or at least emptier too!

Executive with a Cause

Episode 01: Carrie Leeson of Lifeline Canberra

In this episode of Executive with a Cause, host Tammy Ven Dange chats with Carrie Leeson, CEO of Lifeline Canberra and The Beacon Group.

How does an established charity experiment with new opportunities, whilst bound by the necessary bureaucracy of the Not for Profit (NFP) sector? And how can an organisation develop resilience at a time when their service demands are at record levels, but with reducing government support?

Carrie Leeson talks us through her creative approach of using one organisation to support another, with her work in ‘the sandpit’ as CEO of The Beacon Group. Here, she identifies and creates new growth and revenue opportunities for Lifeline, without the associated risk.

Carrie also discusses the power of ‘compatibility’ and a shared cause when managing a NFP team, and provides insights into balancing purpose with good governance as the NFP sector continues its rapid growth.

Thank you for listening to the Executive with a Cause podcast. Don’t forget to follow us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

IT in Plain English

In this week’s segment of ‘IT in Plain English’, what does a suitcase have to do with servers and the cloud? Find out in this episode of ‘Executive with a Cause’!

Sign-up here to subscribe to the “IT in Plain English” newsletter. You can submit your question to Tammy Ven Dange by messaging her on LinkedIn, and maybe she’ll answer it on the show.

Topics from this episode:

  • 0.00 | Intro
  • 0.55 | What is Lifeline Canberra?
  • 2.50 | The Lifeline Book Fair
  • 5.00 | Diversifying the organisation’s income
  • 6.00 | The Beacon Group
  • 9.00 | Deciding to create another organisation
  • 11.30 | The Pandemic
  • 15.30 | Mitigating physical and emotional risks for teams
  • 19.50 | Utilising technology
  • 22.00 | Tools to becoming a better leader
  • 23.55 | Managing teams with volunteers and staff
  • 27.50 | Commitment
  • 29.40 | Identifying cultural fit
  • 33.40 | Emerging themes for Lifeline
  • 36.00 | The difficulty of collaboration for Not for Profits
  • 37.50 | Advice for whether to start an Not for Profits
  • 41.00 | Breaking down the role of a CEO
  • 42.00 | Dealing with change
  • 44.40 | Advice for running a better Not for Profit
  • 47.00 | Where to find out more about Lifeline?

Quotes from Carrie Leeson in this episode:

“Beacon Group allows us to be really agile, to try new things, to take risks and find ways to change the conversation around mental health, and be where we’re needed really quickly.”

“The book fairs are an institution, almost an iconic event in Canberra that we’re slowly growing in other states.”

“Lifeline is a very well-known brand and very trusted in Australia. It is very clear in its mission and what it seeks to achieve for the Australian community, so of course when you try to diversify to respond to community needs, they may well fall out of the scope of that organisation”

“Beacon Group was created for that purpose, to go out and around that (Lifeline Canberra) brand, but always in support of the brand”

“It (The Beacon Group) isn’t bound by licensing and agreements, which allows us to go out and around and respond to the immediate need, without the bureaucracy of a larger organisation”

“Understanding what the organisational priorities are when you come into a well-known, trusted brand, understanding what it is you can do within the confines, and still achieve the outcomes, because things are changing all the time.”

“Understanding compliance and governance as part of the tapestry is so important.”

“What we had to do with Lifeline Canberra was focus on sustainability. The organisation itself was in a precarious position financially, having lost significant funding streams from the government. And so our priority then wasn’t to create, it was to consolidate and try and stop the bleeding. What we had to do was quickly generate revenue streams.”

“There were often multiple attempts to work within the brand without understanding what the consequences, unintended or otherwise would be of going down certain paths. There was a lot of engagement with Lifeline Australia and our networks before we established it (Beacon Group) would be good for everyone if we moved some projects outside of the Lifeline brand.”

“I sought to understand, from the beginning, what the mission was, what the objective was, what was special about it. As someone coming in who was relatively new, on both sides of the organisation, it was really important to understand what I was asking of people.”

“When you create a safe environment, both emotionally and physically for individuals, that’s where they’re able to shine and thrive, and actually contribute back to the culture.”

“We have a really good read on the community that we’re serving. Individual’s preferences and engagement and habits. And that’s been awarded to us through analytics.”

“We now have a series of platforms online that assist us in ensuring that we’re accurate on the compliance side, but also that we’re engaging regularly and getting our message out consistently on the front-end, relationship side.”

“How we essentially manage and engage (volunteers and staff) is very, very similar.”

“With a volunteer…it’s all heart, and they’re coming to you because they’re either passionate about leaving the community or organisation better than they found it, or because they’ve suffered a loss themselves, or they’re coming to you because they’ve experienced something, and they want to prevent someone else going through it.”

“Understanding the very unique drivers, helps you determine what commitment means, and what you’re asking for, and how you facilitate it and grow it.”

“What we’re anticipating is an increase in the number of mental health challenges people will face, for at least the next three years.”

“I came in very green into the charity sector, from the private sector, and thought collaboration was just the way to go. But it’s not, only because of the funding issues that preclude that collaboration, because it can put a risk to funding.”

“My role at this point is to understand, to scout and see what’s left, what’s remaining, what do people need? What’s the sentiment? Where’s the revenue going to come from and how will we sustain ourselves?”

“Whatever we do strategically, whatever strategy the board sets for me, it’s really important that I digest that and set in place operational processes that match the strategy but meet the need that’s out there at the moment.”

“There’s a lot of pressure to make sure what you’re doing is having the most impact on those who need it the most.”

“We’re seeing new challenges. Never in my wildest dreams would I have anticipated, ten, fifteen years ago that a Lifeline Book Fair would need to be shut-down by protests!”

“It’s a very, very different operating environment, and people’s expectations of the organisation have changed, and it’s really important that I understand that”

“There’s new consequences to doing things the same way. The situations have changed. The complexities on the phoneline have changed”

“Unfortunately we’re in a situation where we’re having to triage services and triage individuals. And hopefully we’ll find ourselves in a world where we don’t have to do that. That’s the mission”

 Links & Resources

Coming Soon “Executive with a Cause” podcast

It’s been about 18 months since I released my final episode of the “Plastics Revolution” podcast. While I really loved that format of communications and networking, I did find it incredibly time-consuming. Furthermore, with such a niche topic based in Australia, I was finding it harder to identify good guests to interview.

Since then I have been thinking about a new show with a broader audience, and especially one that I could at least partially connect to my other business, Roundbox Consulting. So, I’m very excited to unveil my new podcast, “Executive with a Cause.” The first episode will be coming out at the end of April.

Tammy Ven Dange

About the Show: Executive with a Cause

We often know the “WHY” of a purpose-driven organisation. However, on this show, I chat with Not for Profit and Social Enterprise leaders as we uncover the “HOW” – the nuts and bolts of what it really takes to run them well.

How do they balance financial sustainability with their mission? What tools do they use to run their operations? What lessons have they learned as people leaders?

In Australia alone, there are an estimated 600,000 Not for Profits. When you add social enterprises and the global scale of purpose-driven organisations in general, there are a lot of people trying to do great things.

My desire is to share stories to help others better run their operations so that their missions can also thrive.

Launch Date:

We’re currently recording shows with CXO-level leaders in Not for Profits or Social Enterprises with the plan to start releasing them at the end of April. Thankfully, I have a full production and editing team helping me out this time. So, we plan to release the shows on a weekly basis without burning me out this time!

Do you know a great “Executive with a Cause?”

I love it when people provide me with guest recommendations. While they may not always be right for this show or at this time, I do maintain a list. In fact, I’m already lining up guests that were identified for my last show and never made it to the interview stage. So, if you know a great “Executive with a Cause,” feel free to drop me a recommendation.