I am fortunate to have had a long, varied, and enjoyable career thus far. However, in the beginning, it took a little while to get things on track. I have written previously about how I decided against going on to study at University or College. In this post, I’ll explain a bit about the role I got which, I feel, changed everything. We’ll also discuss why it’s important to recognise and appreciate such roles.
In The Beginning
After I left school aged 18, I had little real idea of what I wanted to do. But it was was important to earn some money in order to live. I signed up with a temporary work agency and spent about 9 months in various unskilled roles. Despite working hard, my potential remained untapped in such roles.
Often there were short breaks when one role came to a natural end, and I was waiting on the next. In one such break, my mother saw an advert in the jobs section of the local newspaper. My immediate reaction was that I didn’t have the experience that they required, but I was encouraged by my parents to apply.
Hell-Xenotron supplied electronic design and typesetting equipment to the publishing industry. It had started as a small company in the UK named Xenotron. But was eventually taken over by a German company named Hell, which was itself owned by Siemens. The Hell-Xenotron division still had a small company feel to it despite being part of a large multinational.
Hell-Xenotron’s core business was selling proprietary hardware publishing systems. However, the publishing industry was undergoing something of a revolution due to Desk Top Publishing (DTP). DTP was the arrival of software packages such as Quark Express (for page layouts) and Adobe Illustrator (for graphics). These ran on standard hardware such as PCs and Apple Macs. Such hardware was significantly cheaper than the proprietary systems that Hell-Xenotron traditionally supplied. It needed to adapt.
Most of the existing staff were unfamiliar with the new DTP domain. So Hell-Xenotron decided to employ some people with experience in that area.
As I mentioned previously, I didn’t feel that I had the relevant experience. Specifically, I had no real experience of DTP. It turns out that wasn’t an issue. As well as hiring some folks that did have that experience, they also wanted some younger, cheaper hires who could learn and adapt.
In the interview, I basically enthused about all the things I loved to do in my spare time. I had taught myself how to code in C on an Atari ST, and just loved tinkering with computers. I was still only 19, and didn’t have the real-world experience of anything to do with computers in the temp roles I’d had. But my sheer enthusiasm got me the job, I think.
I started on a three-month probation period and loved the role from day 1. The job itself was all-around technical support for the DTP product suite. The task of understanding how all of this DTP stuff worked fell to a small group of new hires. We then needed to support others within the business, and also customers.
There was little in the way of coding, which the majority of my career has been based upon. However, one of the things I worked on was writing Unix shell scripts for installing software on to Sun workstations. Bourne Shell was the shell in question. I certainly think that this specific task fell to me because of my hobbyist coding experience, and it definitely paved the way for later things.
Above all else, this job allowed me to grow. Not only did it actively encourage my natural desire to learn new things, but the people around me were hugely supportive. The company itself was also hugely supportive. When I needed to get up to speed on things quickly, it sent me on training courses. But I think that I added significantly to the company, as well. My initial 3 month probation period passed, and I got a healthy salary increase.
All good things must come to an end
I worked at Hell-Xenotron for almost exactly two years. I grew enormously in that time. The end came about because of a merger between the parent company, Hell, and another company within the industry. The activities of the other company were complementary to those of Hell, but there was a large overlap with the activities of the Xenotron division. We all knew that redundancies would come sooner or later.
On the fateful day, Hell-Xenotron made many of my colleagues redundant. While it offered me a six-month extension with a significantly lower redundancy settlement than if I went immediately. I wanted to think about it overnight and discuss it with others. But they demanded a decision within an hour.
Months of speculation about redundancies had eroded the atmosphere and vitality of a once enjoyable work environment. That coupled with the significantly higher payout if I took immediate redundancy made my decision much easier.
The job with Hell-Xenotron was by no means the highest paid job in my career – quite the opposite, in fact. Nor did it give me that much in the way of technical experience which would later help me as a software engineer.
However, I still look back and see it as the job which helped me on the first step of the journey that I have taken in my career. It encouraged me to use my natural desire to learn and do it as part of my job. It encouraged me to grow and understand how individual growth is important in every role. Furthermore, it encouraged me to collaborate with those around me. I was working in a multifunctional team. What we achieved together was far greater than what we could have done individually.
It was also a really fun time, for me – despite things turning darker towards the end. The work was hard, but enjoyable and rewarding. But I loved it, and still recall those days with a enormous fondness many years later.
© 2021, Mark Allison. All rights reserved.
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