Adapting to changing career priorities

This post was contributed by Birkbeck student, Emma Curry, who recently attended a networking event hosted by the Transforming Institutions by Gendering contents and Gaining Equality in Research (TRIGGER) team – a research project in Birkbeck’s Department of Management

CareerOn 10 July, the TRIGGER team was delighted to welcome Dr Carol Small (a former senior lecturer at Birkbeck who has worked in a variety of industries) to discuss her experiences of working within computing, and to share some advice on how to adapt to roles within different kinds of organisations. The event also sought to provide a networking opportunity for Birkbeck staff, students and alumni, many of whom were interested in pursuing a career in IT.

In search of career ‘flow’

Dr Small opened proceedings by asking the audience: what are the constituents of a good career? Rather than money, power, or academic prestige, Dr Small suggested one goal that might be worth striving for is that which psychologists define as ‘flow’. A position of ‘flow’ in your career is one in which a high level of skill meets a high level of challenge, meaning that you are constantly excited by your work and do not notice the time passing.

Dr Small then took us through the various roles she had worked in over the course of her career, and the challenges and opportunities that each role afforded. Her career began as a commodity broker (a job in which she was the computer) before moving on to becoming a programmer in the civil service. She then moved into academia, completing an MSc and PhD at Birkbeck and taking on a lecturing role.

Career steps: Academic and banking

In an academic job the role is split into three components: teaching, research, and administration, which, as Small highlighted, can be challenging if your interest lies in only one of these aspects. A lengthy academic career can also be a problem for moving back into industry, unless you have a specialism that is particularly sought after. However, as Small emphasised, such a move is possible, provided you plan ahead, and move in incremental steps, perhaps by moving into an interim role in order to gain some experience.

Following a move away from academia, Dr Small worked on encryption for a small software company before moving on to become a freelance programmer at Deutsche Bank.

Dr Small emphasised that the banking industry has incredibly high IT demands, so this can be an excellent route in to industry, but she warned that it is important to tailor your CV to the company you’re applying for, by making sure you ‘tick the boxes’ in terms of programming languages etc.

Often large companies are looking for a background of jobs in industry, so it is important to emphasise where your strengths lie if you have had a more varied career path. A freelancing role can be incredibly rewarding, as it forces you to do your best work for your customer, but it can also be stressful in terms of job security.

Career progression

ComputingDr Small also suggested that networking was a very important skill to develop in building your career. She advised that it is very important to overcome shyness and make as many connections as you can across the course of your career, as often companies will invite candidates they are already aware of to apply for roles. Being vocal was also an important way of rising within the ranks once you have entered a company: as Small suggested, being active and asking about promotional opportunities was a very valuable way of receiving feedback on your work.

Dr Small also emphasised the difficulties of remaining a computer programmer throughout your life: in such an incredibly fast-moving industry, it can be difficult to keep up to date with constantly-changing programming languages, and she suggested that it is often necessary to plan a move from a technical role to a managerial one relatively quickly. Managerial roles can be tricky, as they involve delegating and being less involved in the ‘nuts and bolts’ work, but also incredibly rewarding in terms of influence and variety.


The discussion then turned to issues of gender. Dr Small emphasised that often large companies such as Deutsche Bank have specific policies related to discriminatory issues, and are very interested in hiring and promoting people in protected groups. However, often these policies are not always enacted.

Small suggested remaining observant and proactive, and thinking about how you can effect change within an organisation. She also emphasised the importance of having the right sort of mentoring, from people who know the organisation well and can provide you with a checklist of ways to progress, and of finding someone equally ambitious that you can team up with.

During the Q&A portion of the event, there was also some discussion about the relationship between family and career, especially for women. In such a fast-moving industry it can be very easy during times of leave to fall behind with the latest developments. However, the importance of finding a way of keeping in touch with your organisation was stressed, even by working just a few hours a week.

In response to the final question of the event, of how you achieve ‘flow’ in a managerial role, Dr Small suggested that one of the most rewarding elements was having the power to make a difference within an organisation. With gender issues becoming ever more part of the conversation in both industry and academia, this power to bring about institutional change will be a very valuable one in the future.

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