Category Archives: RUG – Student

Career Advice

I don’t know i it’s a badge of honour or not, but for most of my professional life I did not receive any career advice, and the only time I did, I ignored it. Meaning that my decisions, half-cocked though they may have been at times, were mine, and if things didn’t quite work out as planned, I only had myself to blame.

The only time I received any career advice was in the last year of secondary school, when I wasn’t quite sure what path to engineering I wanted to take. I had already decided that, since I was good at maths and didn’t want to be a teacher, I’d plump for engineering studies. I also had (and still have) an interest in biology and geology, but I decided that I didn’t want my hobby potentially spoiled by studies in those subjects, so I’d settle for something that my studies thus far had prepared me for.

So when the career adviser saw me he must have picked up those vibes, not only of wanting to do engineering – I think I must have told him so much in words – but also of my doubts whether I was up to the job of doing a university degree. The latter may have transpired from my parents, since I was the first in the family to try and go to university (that was in the days when going to university was still a minority pursuit, and there were plenty of jobs where higher non-university degree could land you a decent job).

So his advice was to hedge my bets and go initially for technical engineer, which was a 3-year non-university degree, instead of the 5-year civil engineer university degree. Once you had that degree under your belt you could then try for the university degree, for which you would have to pass the entrance exam first and start in the second year of the university course. So in the end you would be studying for 7 years instead of 5, but you have the safety net of having a degree before you attempted for the one you really wanted.

What happened in the end was that I was being prepared, together with a few other prospective engineering students, by our maths teacher to pass the entrance exam for the university degree. My thinking on the subject was that if I passed I would start the 5-year university course, and if I didn’t I would start the 3-year non-university course.

In the end I did pass and apart from a stumble in the first year, never looked back. Who knows what twists and turns my life would have taken had I taken the career advice and settled for the lesser option? Would I ever have decided to go for the university degree, or would a prospective job have led me on a different path altogether ?


From Metallurgy to IT, Part 1

Somehow my career as a metallurgist took a turn towards IT, first as an advanced user, and in the last 15 years as a developer and data specialist. This is not altogether such a strange turn of events, since there is a lot of data floating around in the steel industry, and by attempting to make the best use of these data to turn them into useful information it seemed only logical that I would become a self-taught programmer.

Part 1 aims to cover my initial involvement (or lack thereof) with IT. Which started in my student days with a basic course on “Ordinatoren en programmeren” (basically mainframe computers and how to programme them), and a very theoretical and utterly useless course it was (to me, anyway). Not for me to make the regular trek to the mainframe terminal to feed in my punch cards, only to find that you had made a silly mistake and had to start all over from scratch until you got it right.

The nearest I got to programming was when my parents bought me a programmable Texas TI-58 calculator, which at the time cost the equivalent of £500. Which basically could do what any run-of-the -mill calculator of a few quid can do now, except that a solution could be stored on magnetic strips, and then reloaded from them.

Very little changed during my time as a student and as a researcher, with the computer revolution totally passing me by. Even then, my army days was like going back 20 years, with calculations being carried out on standard forms, where skipping a step by doing the calculation in your head was heavily frowned upon. Still, there was supposed to be a help in the form of a cassette-driven contraption which nobody used. So in essence, the use of my TI-58 was allowed as an alternative, although the holy grail was its big brother TI-59, which was more potent in its programming capabilities.

My favourite calculator had its last hurrah in South Africa where it helped me perform repetitive calculations, the likes of which would now be done through the use of a spreadsheet. After I moved from the hot mill to steel making technology, I finally got to do something that came closer to proper programming. But that’s for another blog.

False Starts

This is the story of how three times, twice when I was at university, the other time when I started working life, I had to regroup because the initial attempt failed.

When I started out as a student, I made the mistake of commuting every day between Bruges and Ghent, a half-hour train journey plus additional travel which in all amounted to 2 hours per day lost in travel. I also was caught out by the system of tests taken throughout the year which counted for a third of the points and where my performance varied from bad to abysmal.

The result ? I was advised to stop the first set of exams because I would have failed so badly that I would have been refused a resit. But even with a better effort in September, trying to make up for the lost points of the tests proved insurmountable.

Still, passing with distinction when I redid the first year proved that I had a learnt a number of valuable lessons. The first of these lessons is to develop a method of studying that gets you through tests and exams. The second is to make sure that you make use of whatever resources available to you at the time, which of necessity includes past exam questions. The latter make you realise that there’s only a limited number of questions that can turn up in an exam, and that you can develop a system of keywords that guide you through each topic.

The second time was when I had to select a topic for a thesis, and chose “Electro-galvanising in weak acidic non-cyanide solutions”, a follow-on of a similar thesis done the year before in alkaline solutions. The conclusion : never do a follow-up thesis, because unless your effort is clearly superior to the earlier attempt, you’re going to be compared unfavourably with it. Although a score of 70% on the thesis was OK-ish, a slightly higher score would have landed me a “great distinction” rather than the distinction which marginally missed the higher grade.

The last false start was not to understand the industry I was going to enter, and what steps to take to perform well from the start. For starters, I did not fully understand what an engineer actually did, not realising that the syllabus only spoke of how systems were supposed to work in an ideal set-up rather than show how engineers carry it along to overcome all the bugs and warts that real life throws at the unwary.

I also had not realised that, in order to find a job at any company as a metallurgist, it’s a good thing if your face is already known, which you do by doing some holiday work in companies that you take a fancy to. Since I didn’t know this, I took up the offer of working as a researcher at the university, not realising that in an industrial environment a job at a university is not seen as a “proper job”. That became very clear at the time I had started job hunting on leaving the army. Plus, the last thing I learnt during the 8 months I was unemployed is that it’s far easier to look for a job when you’re still in a job rather than from an unemployed position.

This became abundantly clear when after nearly half a year of unemployment I had an interview, and the interviewer looked at my CV. His remark that I was still unemployed after several months clearly carried overtones of “What’s wrong with you ?”. That’s why, when I had the good fortune of getting a second stint at the same Laboratory for Iron & Steel Making, I immediately made sure that I went on the job hunt. That’s also why, when the professor had the bad news that my annual contract could not be renewed, I was glad to be in the comfortable position of having the position with Iscor in my pocket.

In short : it’s OK to fail, provided you learn from your mistakes. Which I hope I have done over the subsequent 30-odd years.

On Becoming a Metallurgist

At this stage I’m supposed to say that I had a burning desire to be a metallurgist from when I was only knee-high. Not so. Just like I made the right decision at the right time to retire for all the wrong reasons, the reasons for choosing metallurgy could at best be described as half-cocked.

In the first place, why an engineer ? “Well, I’m good at maths, but I don’t want to go into teaching …”. Sounds convincing ? Thought so. At least I had sufficient self-knowledge to see that I didn’t have the temperament to be a teacher. Besides, my dad’s experience as a primary school teacher acted as a warning flag that teaching was drifting in a direction where the wrong temperament could well cause you a little bit more than a mere nuisance.

So I did the entrance exam and passed. How did I get from there to metallurgy ? There was no need to choose anything in the first year, since the subjects were generic ones for everyone. A rough split had to be made in the second year between the options of architecture, civil, mechanical, electronic and chemical engineer. I can’t quite remember why I chose the chemistry branch – maybe I didn’t quite fancy the other branches.

For the last three years the chemistry branch was to split between textile, chemistry proper, and metallurgy. The decision was made on the basis that in my second year I really struggled with organic chemistry, and only just scraped through. And since metallurgy was the only one of the three options that concerned itself mostly with inorganic chemistry the decision was basically made for me.

And after all, there were not many people choosing metallurgy. Hence the logic was that even if there were not many positions for metallurgist there would not be much competition for those jobs either. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I can only say “Ha ! Bloody ha !”.

It also goes to show that I didn’t have much of an idea of the industry I was gearing myself up for, nor what an engineer really did once in a job. But that is the topic for a future blog.