Tag Archives: Career Path

Saying Your Goodbyes


Whenever I left one job to go to another, there usually wasn’t much of a goodbye involved, and even less so as time wore on.

When I left the laboratory of professor Dilewijns, there was an informal get together with the technicians, but as far as I can remember no speeches and no presents. Maybe followed by a few pints in the pub, that’s about it.

The farewell was a little bit more official in Iscor, with a conference room booked and full of people that I’d known and worked with in the technology department. Can’t remember too much about the speech, apart from flattering my audience by saying that South Africa would always have a friend in me. I received a watch as a present, although it can’t have been a very good one, since it fell apart within half a year of me receiving it.

The farewell from Allied Steel & Wire was a bit more awkward given the circumstances, but there was a skittles evening as the Christmas do, which doubled up as a farewell do for me. I must still have the pewter cup its the AS&W logo, but it’s packed away somewhere – I still don’t see the point in putting it on display. In my reply to Tony Franks’ speech I stated that, while I would miss them as colleagues, I wouldn’t miss Allied Steel & Wire as a company.

And that was really the last of the official farewells. When I left Tinplate R&D for Ebbw Vale, it was initially only as a secondment, and by the time the secondment became permanent due to the reorganisation of R&D set-up, there was no-one left to say goodbye to. Likewise when I left Ebbw Vale for Llanwern: by the time I was making the move there were very few people left to say goodbye to.

The move from Llanwern to Port Talbot turned out to be so gradual that there hardly seemed to be any point having a farewell do, because by the time my move to Port Talbot became official, I had already spent quite a bit of time there.

When I finally decided on my retirement, I was so busy until the very last day that all the farewell consisted of going to see a few the closest colleagues and shaking their hand, receiving two £25 vouchers as a thank you for services rendered, and a final email containing the message “So long, and thanks for all the fish” – I didn’t want to come across as too sentimental, and I thought the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy reference couldn’t hurt my geek credentials.

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A Life in Steel


It’s rather strange how my career has been sampling various aspects of the steel industry, but never any other industry where a metallurgist could gave found a job. In hindsight this seems rather odd. It’s not that I directed all my efforts at finding a job in a steel-related industry, but somehow all the positive responses came from that direction.

First of all, you would have expected that if I took on a job as a researcher, then that would have been with the Laboratory for Non-Ferrous Metallurgy and Electrometallurgy where I did my thesis. In fact, professor Dilewijns took both metallurgy students from my year as researchers, and since there was no similar offer from professor Van Peteghem, I took what was on offer, which was the iron and steel making side of the business (as well as some physical metallurgy).

Once I came out of the army I’m sure I spread the net far and wide, in any possible direction where I could possibly land a job. As I’ve said elsewhere, I was utterly unsuccessful, and was very grateful that I was given a second stint at professor Dilewijns’ laboratory, which gave me the opportunity to find a job whilst being in a job.

During my time there I kept on the look-out for suitable job adverts, again not restricting myself to iron and steel. Still, in the end the one that came up was Iscor, which, needless to say, was again steel. Maybe being a researcher familiar with iron and steel gives you a leg up when discussing things during an interview, but that only helps to explain the outcome of the application round, not the initial direction of the application letters.

When leaving South Africa I had already started sending out application letters, using a helpful student directory that I had acquired beforehand. Again the same thing: many application letters to a wide variety of companies, but in the end of the three offers I had to choose from, two were in steel (Allied Steel &a Wire and British Steel Scunthorpe) and the third was partly related to the use of steel (Inco Alloys). The decision to choose AS&W was purely based on the salary offered, and not on whether it was a continuation of my life in steel.

Once I had to go on the next round of job applications, after my redundancy had been broached to me, the emphasis was probably more on the steel industry, although not completely so. But maybe my credentials and achievements in various aspects of steel making were by now weighing in heavier than other capabilities (such as auditing), and in the end my reacquaintance with British Steel, this time at their Tinplate R&D department in Port Talbot only confirmed the further embedding of my career in a steel environment.

Maybe if I had been more successful finding a Java programming job after my distance learning course with CompuTeach, things might have turned out differently. As it was, there I was trying to find a job with fairly lightweight qualifications in a post-dot com bubble job market, and making very little headway in doing so. Hence I took the life raft to Llanwern, and haven’t looked back since. Maybe if the need had come sooner I could have entered the IT market with more success at a later stage, but first of all my age could by then have counted against me, and secondly, maintaining an attractive pension package was sufficient enticement to stay for as long as I could.

Maybe previous experience really speaks louder than any other factors when you’re looking for another job. At the time I went through the various application rounds I was not aware that I was skewing the direction in which I was applying, but as time went on, a positive response in line with earlier jobs and experience seemed to become a given.

Decadal Birthdays


During the period 1973-2016 described in this blog I passed five decadal milestones, at age 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60. Just wanted to use this blog to reflect on each of these steps.

Aged 20, December 1975

I had just completed my (repeat) first year successfully, and had now started my second year. Still early days in my studies, but at least I had got the initial failure out of my system and would not repeat it again.

Aged 30, December 1985

My second year at Iscor, and my first year as a married man. At work I had started making a name for myself through my work on hydrogen in steel as well as the cleanliness of continuous cast steel for DWI applications.

Aged 40, December 1995

My last month with Allied Steel & Wire, and at this stage I already knew I had the job in British Steel’s Tinplate R&D. This helped somewhat to get over the disappointment of having been made redundant.

Aged 50, December 2005

Having successfully made the jump, first from Tinplate R&D to Ebbw Vale, and then from Ebbw Vale to Llanwern, I was now in the process of establishing the web-based systems from the hot strip mill to Llanwern’s pickle line and cold mill. I think by this time I had also already started making some headway in setting up a traffic light system for Port Talbot’s hot strip mill.

Aged 60, December 2015

At this stage I had already started the process of getting ready for my retirement, being in my third month of helping Theo to get used to dealing with internal IT customers. Just before the Christmas period I helped to set up an entry system to record the contributions each of the middle managers promised to make to help save the business. The shock of Tata’s plans to sell of all of its UK business were still a few months in the future.

Middling


It’s something I’ve noticed throughout my career: compared to the layman I’m an expert, however, compared with the real specialists I’m anything but.

Take for instance my initial profession as a metallurgist. I have a reasonable understanding, and sufficient knowledge to work myself into a new topic should the need arise, but if someone asked me “you’re a metallurgist, can you help me with such and such?”, chances are that I can only give general pointers and fall short of really being helpful.

That was brought home to me when I went for an interview with the Welding Institute. Asked the question on the role of manganese on the properties of steel, I could give the general rule of thumb of its contribution to the carbon equivalent, but not the in-depth metallurgical structures behind it. [it turns out that manganese lowers the temperature at which pearlite forms, meaning that the lamellar of cement it ends are closer together, and hence increase the steel strength]. I’m sure that this lack of in-depth knowledge cost me a job offer.

Also, when I was one of the local IT experts during my time in Llanwern / Port Talbot, I was very much aware of my limitation: I doubt whether I would have lasted long as a developer in the big bad world of the open web – just not sufficiently security-conscious to build really secure entry systems. Also, while in the end I was OK with .NET, my lack of familiarity with JQuery or php probably would have meant that the pages probably would have lacked the fluidity and user-friendliness of modern-day webpages.

Likewise now that I’m retired, and my involvement as a committee member of both the South Wales Geologists Association and the South East Wales RIGS Group: compared with the layman my general knowledge of various aspects of geology is good. However, compared with a real geologist I clearly fall short of being able to help out with the real geological nitty-gritty.

So how did I manage to make a relative success of my career ? I’d say it’s a matter of being a jack of many trades, and being able to combine a middling knowledge in two separate fields into a joint capability that’s worth having around. Especially the fact that I could be a web developer who at the same had a good appreciation of the metallurgical processes that my systems were supposed to be supporting gave me an edge over someone who lacked either of those two fields of knowledge.

Likewise for my involvement with the geologists: being more IT-savvy than most members there gave me an advantage in trying to become the publicity officer in a social media environment. And even the limited combination of HTML and CSS in WordPress.com is often sufficient to have an on-line presence, and definitely better than no presence at all.

Am I trying to make a virtue out of my limitations ? Probably. Still, it worked while it lasted.

Internet Explorer


Throughout my time at work, either browsers did not exist (Tinplate R&D and before) or we used Internet Explorer as our standard browser (Ebbw Vale and after). Which made it quite easy for a developer, since you didn’t have to complicate your code so that the style sheets and JavaScript worked for all conceivable browsers.

When I worked in Tinplate R&D we had Lotus Notes for email and “databases”, but no browser or browser-based email systems. That was still in the Windows 3.11 days, and your various apps were things like Lotus Smartsuite, Windows Explorer, Lotus Notes. I still remember from a course in Ashorne Hill that at the time people were very concerned about cyber security, and although at the time there was talk of an intranet and firewall, it took a few years before it was available on our works PCs.

Also, access to the big wide world of the Internet was restricted to the selected few who had a clear need for it and were trusted not to make a pigs ear of it. The first time browsers became more widespread was when I had moved to Ebbw Vale – the standard then was Internet Explorer 4 on Windows 95, and I’m pretty sure I had internet access, which I needed for my distance learning course with CompuTeach.

At the time I did not develop any web pages, but made use of a page built for me to extract Focus Six-generated WK1 spreadsheets to generate my first generation traffic light graphs. That all changed with my move to Llanwern, where the standard at the time was IE5 on Windows NT – funny enough people still called the browser Netscape from the days when the initial browser was Netscape before the business decided to standardise on Internet Explorer.

Shortly afterwards we upgraded to IE6, which was the one where Microsoft had decided no longer to support applets. And since applets were at the time being used on our web pages to display a variety of charts, those people who got upgraded all of a sudden were unable to see their graphs – that is, until Sun Microsystems brought out their patch for applets to work despite Microsoft’s lack of support.

The next version was IE8, and that was also the last one, since Windows XP could not support any later versions of that browser. Meaning that for the majority of users time stood still for the best part of 10 years. So much so that in the end applications like FutureMail (our new email system replacing Lotus Notes, in essence Office365) or Yammer required the use of Google Chrome instead of IE8.

Which is rather ironic, since at some point I did have FireFox and later Google Chrome on my PC and was challenged why I had non-standard software installed. I really had to prove that it helped in my job as a developer, and all of a sudden, the limitations of Windows XP forced the powers-that-be into adopting non-standard themselves.

When I left I did have one of the new laptops in order to explore how our current systems were going to behave on Windows 8.1, so I managed to get a taste of things to come, but for one reason or another Google Chrome was still there for emails. But heaven forbid if you tried to use it for other sites, because then you were committing the immortal sin of using non-standard software ! I did, and I know why. Some Microsoft-generated web pages don’t behave very sensibly or even refuse to load in browsers other than Internet Explorer.

My web pages were tested and passed with flying colours – showing that not all Microsoft-generated content (I used ASP.NET for my web development) is restricted to their own browser.