I went to a convent school and on telling our career guidance counsellor that I was going to study Hebrew in university, she told me I would never get a job and I should reconsider before it was too late. Several years later when I was successfully working in Google thanks to attaining a Masters with Distinction in Near Eastern Languages, I was asked to come speak to girls in that school about it. That is the basis of my most important lesson in life so far: do what you love and are interested in and opportunities will follow.
During my time in university I worked at a movie rental store, a cinema and as membership secretary of a wild bird conservancy charity. Although I did manage to be employee of the month at the cinema, this part of my life didn't equip me with the key skills needed to excel in fast-paced tech environments. However, the one thing that I learned over and over again: no one is going to hand it to you – if you want it you need to reach out and take it for yourself. If you find yourself saying “But I didn’t know we could do….”, try to turn that around to “I want to do…how can I? Will you help me?” If you are waiting until you are in a specific team/company/industry to do work related to that team/company/industry, or if you are waiting until you are promoted to a management position before you start mentoring, coaching and leading people – you’re doing it wrong. Just do it now in whatever way you can and opportunities will arise.
As my time working on my Masters drew to a close at the end of 2003, I decided to take a year to travel and work my way around the world, so this is what I did for all of 2004 in Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dallas. The biggest work lessons during that trip were not from the clerical work I performed for a health insurance company in Sydney, but from the myriad crazy jobs I did WWOOFing in Queensland. These ranged from building a boat, working in a gold mine, tiling a swimming pool, managing a hostel, etc etc. These varied jobs taught me that I can do anything I set my mind to: skill = willpower + practice.
From there I got the opportunity to really test that premise as we went on to complete a 10-day hike in New Zealand, which if you haven’t done anything like this is really quite the experience. There are so many moments where you feel like you literally cannot go on, but actually there is no choice – you need to go on no matter how painful it is. Standing on a snow-covered mountain after 7 hours hiking uphill, there is no “teleport back to civilisation” button, you just need to keep going.
When we got home at Christmas 2004, I had no money and set about finding jobs for the new year. I found an ad for “Online Editor” at Google and spent 3 days perfecting my CV for this role. I was so convinced that I would get this job that I didn’t apply for anything else (which everyone said was very foolish) and instead spent my time learning everything about Google and AdWords so when (not if, when!) I got the interview I would be an expert. I got the interview and got the job – but not because I knew everything about AdWords, which we barely spoke of in the interview, but rather because I had potential based on what they considered an interesting story due to doing what I loved: studying ancient languages, being secretary for the Science Fiction & Fantasy society in university, and travelling for a year.
From my 3 and a half years working at Google, the things that stick out the most to me are my memories of the people. Every other role I had to do in the past relied on having a specific task to perform and performing that task to the best of my ability. In Google, I learned that this method of work is not good enough in a modern tech company – it is not enough to sit in the corner silently and work on your tasks, you need to engage with others, persuade others, provide feedback to others to improve their work, and be aware of how you are perceived within the organisation by both the leaders and the wider team. In that time I went from an entry-level role to transitioning my team’s work to Hyderabad to helping set up a new team that worked on client research and presentations for events such as ad:tech and SES, to leading the team responsible for AdWords blogs and newsletters to clients.
A key thing I learned then is that the work will never be done. Never never never will it be done. It doesn’t matter if you skip lunch, if you stay in until 11pm, if you work weekends, if you check your work emails on your phone before you get out of bed, if you think about strategy on your holidays – none of these things will lead to the work being done. All you can do is your best & it is important to do your best for yourself as well as for the company. Yes, the company values you but if you burn out, the company can replace you with another bright-eyed graduate. You cannot replace yourself and it takes a long time to regain those bright eyes.
I decided to leave Google in 2008 and ended up travelling again before setting up a small business of my own performing all marketing activities for other small businesses, from website design to online advertising. I found this quite challenging, as the things I had learned from my time in Google about working with people didn’t quite translate to the new client relationships I was building – I was great at the work, but I was not good at setting boundaries or pricing my services adequately. I was also not good at getting up early in the morning and putting in strong 8-hour working days when there was no-one to answer to but myself! Doing what you love is not enough, you need to work hard at it and also push yourself outside the comfort zone to succeed.
From late 2010 I worked at Facebook for 2 and a half years where I learned a whole heap of valuable information about myself and work. Firstly, the concept of “move fast” at all costs – as anyone who knows me knows, often I will freak out about things moving too fast, but that shit gets results. I have learned that it is best to focus on building on your strengths higher rather than trying to fix your weaknesses. I have learned that enthusiasm carries everything; if you are enthusiastic about something you will be able to pull twice as many people twice as far along. Related to this, negativity can be a wildfire that destroys the tiny buds and shoots of ideas and creativity – people need space to think aloud and brainstorm without criticism; if in doubt about your contribution, at the very least be positive. I have learned again, all over again, that people can do whatever they set out to do so long as they have determination, willpower and patience. I’ve seen incredible successes, huge challenges overcome, and kindness in the face of failure.
Now I am back out in the world working on building up my creative writing, fending for myself and painfully re-learning that lesson about how hard it is to put in the full day's work when nobody is relying on you but yourself. I'm getting there.
All of the above advice is of course only possible for me to believe, take comfort in and follow thanks to the people in my life who believe in me and support me each day. Surround yourself with believers and be a believer yourself. Sometimes I get it right and can believe myself into productivity and achievement, sometimes I get it wrong and need a little help. Today, for example, I spent a while weeping and flailing around about how useless I am at writing, at productivity, at life itself - "I can't, I can't, I can't" I repeated over and over like a mantra. This could have been true. Except, I am lucky enough to have someone in my corner who always fights for me, who repeated "You can, you can, you can" until I dried my tears and sat up in the chair and got to writing. Tomorrow is another day.