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Glad I didn’t follow my dreams

Blog: Capgemini CTO Blog

Growing up as a boy, I always wanted to be a Pilot – that was all I could think about, every day. I still remember a lot of my dreams revolved around flying. They took different forms that stretched from being Superman to an astronaut. They all included flying as the main basic theme. From an early age, I had worked out that I had two possible routes to being a pilot, but for some reason being an air force pilot wasn’t as exciting as being a commercial pilot. The glamour attached to the latter was what tipped the scales for me. Of course, I then realised that becoming an astronaut was not going to be possible either, but I didn’t care, as long as I was flying.

 

I was a fairly average student at school and university, but that didn’t bother me much as well. I later on figured out that I had mild dyslexia which could explain why I struggled with traditional education. I didn’t look at that as a problem, for I thought one didn’t need to excel at education to become a pilot. Back then, I felt one needed just the basic qualifications to get into flying school and I was way better than the criteria expected. When I got into university on the first day, I met another boy who shared the same dream. We both had taken the courses because we both wanted to become pilots. The next 5 years of university were spent discussing planes and moving closer towards our dreams.

 

I finished university with a good grade, which surprised everyone, including me! Like I said, I had only intended to pass and not get the First Class, but I wasn’t going to complain about that. The next step was more important, registering into a flying school. Again there were two options available, register locally or go to the US where there were more facilities and you qualified faster. My mate from the university was lucky enough to be born in a family that could afford to send him to the US to train as a pilot. However, the big blow was yet to come for me. It came when my father said that he couldn’t afford to pay for any sort of flying school anywhere. I still remember my world coming crashing down, my dreams crumbled and I felt I had no options left for me.

 

I had finished university with a degree I didn’t like or care about it. And what was anyone supposed to do with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry anyway? Nothing. There is probably a lesson in here already about working on a backup plan in life in case your main one doesn’t work out. Up until this point, I didn’t think I needed a backup plan. All along it was drummed into my head about working towards your dream and letting nothing else distract you from that. That is exactly what I was doing, except that now that very dream had vanished.

 

Looking around for a plan B when you’ve never thought of one before can be harder than it sounds. But, surprisingly for me, there was one. It wasn’t something that I had ever thought about seriously but it was something my Dad himself had given me. Very early on, my Dad had tried to set up one of the first computer institutes in the country and his plan failed very badly. He had borrowed huge sums of money to buy a PC for the institute, but he was trying to start a revolution too early. No one wanted to learn computers then, and hence nobody was interested in paying money either to learn it. So, after about a year of trying to make things work, my Dad’s venture was shut down. As the PC was already paid for, he brought it home with absolutely no idea what to do with it. That’s where my curiosity for the device started. I self-taught myself a lot of stuff on the computer and was generally extremely happy with my new hobby.

 

Little did I know that this hobby of mine would one day become a career option for me – my Plan B. I looked around for proper courses I could do in computers and found this interesting computer Diploma that gave you an awareness of most of the popular programming languages and applications at the time. The biggest attraction to the course was at the end of the course, you were offered a job in IT. The only problem was that the course was only available to Engineers and I wasn’t one, I was a Chemistry graduate. But nevertheless, I managed to make an impression on the course directors because of my previous knowledge of computers. They allowed me to register for the course, but couldn’t offer me any guarantee of an IT job. They, however, offered a course instructor’s job. That was fine for me, considering I was running out of options anyway. My Dad managed to find the money needed for the course and I was all set. I was pleased, I had found something to do but, recognised that it wasn’t flying.

 

I finished the course and graduated with a Diploma in computer programming and was going to be starting my new teaching job after the summer. That was the summer that probably changed my life. My Dad spotted a small advertisement in the papers that said a fairly large well known IT company was looking for Non-Engineers. It was the first of its kind in the country and an experiment. I later realised that many companies at the time were struggling to meet the demand for engineers to complete all the work required to deal with the Millennium Bug (Y2K). I will remain eternally grateful to all the computer programmers who created this scenario that allowed me to get a foot into this exclusive club. A psychometric team and two tough interviews later I was in. Also what luck I had that First Class degree, because that was the minimum requirement for the job. I learnt another life lesson, you never know when you might use your previous experience, so it’s best to do the best you can at everything you do.

 

For the next 10 years or so my career in IT was going brilliantly well. I was supposedly spotted as having a real talent for IT and was sent to London extremely early on in my career. In London, I was progressing through the ranks quicker than most. I was breaking all records, youngest Technical Architect, youngest Project Manager, youngest Senior Project Manager, youngest Program Manager etc. Simultaneously outside of work, I was able to expand my network of geeks. I used my IT and electronics skills, that I learnt from my Dad to develop a whole range of new products. I used any spare cash I had to build up a pot to invest in flying school for myself. It was an exciting time for me both in and out of work. But this was my Plan B, my compromise position not my dream job. By now my mate from university, who I hadn’t kept in touch with, was a qualified pilot. It could have been the envy that made me break ties with him and his achievements made me feel sick. I wasn’t appreciative of what I had achieved myself, even though everyone around me was applauding. My career was flying, but I wasn’t!

 

One day I heard another colleague mention that Capgemini UK was looking for people. I remember being intrigued especially when I heard him say, “What wouldn’t I give to work for them”. I looked into it a bit more and realised that Capgemini was in the Top 5 IT consultancies. So I applied. I remember it didn’t take even a few days to get a phone call from them, and until then I always thought that the company career portals were useless. Capgemini was clearly different. I enjoyed the interviewing process with them because I seemed to hit it off with the people straight away. For being one of the Top 5, they seemed pretty down to earth, pretty easy-going and human. I didn’t for a moment hesitate to join Capgemini when I was offered a role and joined as a Transition Manager. At this point, most people would have been celebrating having gotten their dream job but from me, this was still the Plan B.

My career within Capgemini was equally accelerated, if not more. There was no shortage of opportunity and there was definitely no shortage of recognition. The money was good, great actually and I couldn’t believe they were paying me for something I didn’t mind doing anyway. Again, all my new found wealth went straight into my flying school pot which had grown to quite a sizable amount by this point.

 

Within Capgemini, I did a number of different roles. I often surprised people along the way when I used to take up completely unrelated roles as my next move. Roles that would otherwise be seen as steps away from one’s ultimate job. I just wanted to be the very best at what I did and help the organisation solve real business problems. I landed up doing some terrific roles in Transition Management, Project Management, Programme Management, Portfolio Management and even Service Delivery Management.

I was now in my early 30s and I didn’t realise how much I would enjoy working for Capgemini. It provided me with the variety and opportunity that would normally not be offered to someone so young. The company appeared to still be very down to earth, still very human and trusted its people. I was close to cashing in on my reserve fund to enrol in the flying school too. I even moved into our beautiful house which was close to a popular flying school. But, there was no good reason to quit Capgemini. So I thought I would just drop what I was doing outside and register into a flying school. Everything was going great, what could possibly go wrong.

 

Capgemini provides its staff with a free regular eye test and it’s one that I’ve had no difficulty with. However, this one time when I went for what I would have thought was a routine eye test my results alarmed the optician so much that she wanted me to visit my local A&E right away. I was confused, what could be so badly wrong with my eyes especially since I had just read the books they gave me and even managed to read the last line on the eye chart. What started off with a normal eye test resulted in months and months of tests and examinations. All this was covered by my Capgemini healthcare service, I must add, something I had considered completely unnecessary up until that point. Finally, I was delivered the verdict. I was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition called Usher’s Syndrome. It’s a degenerative condition that affects one’s sight and hearing. The doctors said they couldn’t tell me how fast I would lose those senses. It could be anywhere between 5 years to 25 years, but the outcome was certain. I was 35 and suddenly my world came crumbling down, for the second time in my life.

 

I was nervous about the future, the impact this would have on my family and my career. News just started getting worse. I lost my ability to drive, was asked to start wearing hearing aids, warned that I might need a white cane at some point, or even right away if I opted for one. These things can play tricks with your mind. You begin to start doubting everything around you. You wonder what you have missed seeing or hearing. Suddenly rapid career progression didn’t seem important, seeing my very young children grow up was a priority. I started ticking along at work, found myself for the first time not putting myself forward for stuff. Just managing to do my job, continuing to do it well, but nothing else. Nothing was flying for me.

 

That’s when a new VP in my business area noticed me. I didn’t know her very well at all, but she took the time to sit me down one day and ask me what was going on. It was the first time that I admitted at work that I was disabled. I remember struggling to use those words “Disabled” because up until that point I used words like “Invincible” while describing myself. I was worried that people would look at me differently, treat me differently if my health issue was found out. The chat we had was very frank, she told me that the business was changing and that I had a choice to make. I thought this was the end, she was going to tell me she had no place for a weakling. Instead, she asked me if I would like to stay in her business unit, and that she would continue to support me and build a promotion case for me. I couldn’t believe what she was saying. She seemed to actually want me on her team. I will always remember the words she used “At Capgemini, we don’t employ people for what they can’t do, we do it because of what they can”. I was amazed and extremely happy. She, in turn, was equally pleased that I took her offer up of changing roles to suit her business strategy, little did she know I had a history of doing that (wink).

 

The same next day I formally registered myself as Disabled on the internal Capgemini HR system. Didn’t think much of it. The very next day I got a call from HR asking me how they could help. Amazing, another Capgemini system that works. I was asked what adjustments I needed or how they could make things easier for me. They didn’t say they understood my disability and clearly, they didn’t, but they seemed to care. I actually didn’t need any adjustments, I just needed some understanding, and I didn’t expect it but got it. I thought surely now my career will start plateauing. How wrong was I!

 

My VP was true to her word. She sponsored me to going ahead to become a senior Director within Capgemini. I agreed, with only one condition. No one was to know that I was disabled, and certainly no one on the promotion panel. If I was to do this, I would do this just as anyone else. The promotion process to becoming a Director within Capgemini is so long, you wonder why we bother. But, Capgemini invests so heavily in its people that it takes internal promotions more seriously than external hires. This can be seen as positive and negative, but it certainly makes you realise that there is an immense amount of investment made in people here. The entire promotion process was nerve-racking, intense but fun. I had access to just about anyone in the company if it was needed.

 

When the time came, I wonder if I gave things away a little bit at my presentation when I failed to see the “TIME UP” board being held by the HR guy at the back. Nevertheless, there were no obvious signs that I was being handed out an easy ride.

I was promoted to a Director and today I lead a large proportion of Capgemini’s Delivery Portfolio. This wasn’t a role specially designed for me and my ‘new’ limitations, it was a genuine vacancy I filled even though I had limitations. If someone had told me earlier that I would be doing this job, with or without my disability, I would have asked them to stop poking fun at me. Time has flown and I have now landed up working for Capgemini 4 times longer than I had originally planned. There is no shortage of opportunity outside of Capgemini, I just can’t find a good reason enough to quit. Besides, being disabled hasn’t made a damn difference to my job or indeed my career. Capgemini claims to be an inclusive organisation and to the vast majority of people, it might seem like a lip service. But it’s a fact and I am a living proof of it. My job hasn’t gotten any simpler or easier but I remain employed with a flourishing career. I am not part of the active Disabled diversity group that exists within the company because I am probably still in denial that I belong there. I’m sure that when the time comes, I will be welcomed into that group, should I need the support.

 

I wonder what my life and career would have been like if I had chased my dreams. How would that conversation have gone with my bosses in aviation, if I told them I had Ushers Syndrome. I can’t drive today, so surely flying would have been out of the question. What then, I would have been 35 with no Plan B and then starting to look for an alternative career. Who knew that sometimes doing life’s Plan B might turn out to be the best long-term outcome.

 

Thanks Capgemini for being a great employer of people, run by people, all of whom that matter. And finally, Thanks, Dad, it’s taken me a while to accept this, but I owe you my career and life as I know it now.

 

I chose to write this to celebrate Capgemini’s 50th birthday. To let people know that the company, 50 years on, is still living its core values. More importantly, I just made it past 5 years and still have my central vision with enough hearing left to continue working as needed. Onwards and upwards.

#AppsMgt #Capgemini50 #LifeAtCapgemini

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