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?
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.
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.