The chance of a lifetime

On Tuesday 8th March 2016, 10pm French time, the home phone rang. The caller, a friend and CSC Distinguished Engineer, asked for me.

“Hey Martin, dya have a moment?”

“Er, OK, what’s up?” (We work on many things together; it could have been anything. But my heart was suddenly pounding, because I pretty much knew what this call was about.)

“Well, I’ve got good news and bad news, which do you want first?”

“OK, gimme the bad first” (heart and stomach sinking).

“From now on, you’re going to be an awful lot busier!”

I dropped the phone – literally dropped the phone. The good news didn’t need to be said: I’d been accepted as a CSC Distinguished Engineer (DE)!

How on EARTH did I get here? And what did I learn along the way that might help another professional technologist capitalize on a similar life-changing opportunity?

The Accidental DE

Back up two months to the beginning of January, and a Skype message from a stateside colleague: “Are you going to apply for DE this year?”

For those outside CSC, the Distinguished Engineer/Distinguished Architect program recognizes “top minds in the company”. The description on the DE submission form includes the following:

A Distinguished Engineer is an industry-recognized technical expert who has significant impact on CSC’s business… he/she is a role model to professionals across CSC through his/her technical excellence, ethics, leadership and achievements…. Recognized… Expert… Impactful…

Now I had never really thought of myself in those terms! So I gave a noncommittal “maybe” and got on with my day.

Later on a second such message, this time with links to the submission materials and instructions, came from a different quarter and so my interest was piqued:  it seemed to be a somewhat commonly held opinion amongst colleagues that I might qualify. So I downloaded the materials in order to investigate further.

That evening I read the instructions and the questions — and nearly gave up there and then!

The process was, on the face of it, pretty straight forward:

  • Answer 10 fairly general questions and submit with supporting material by the deadline.
  • Wait while the existing DEs read your submission and follow up on your references in order to trim the candidate list to 20-odd who will then be interviewed.
  • After the interview (if you get that far), wait in silence until notified whether or not you made it.

But the questions! Some were OK, but some I didn’t even understand what they were really getting at. I was so tempted to let it drop – let the chance go by!

However, in another conversation with Monsieur Le Friendly DE, I told him my misgivings and he came back with “Hey, it’s OK, I got through it. I’ll be your mentor!”

Lesson #1 – Get a mentor:

Thus, my first piece of advice. For any special designation or award you’re applying for, find someone who has been there and can guide you through the process. It also helps to gather a team of people who will review your application. It’s best if people know about the program or award you’re applying for, of course, but if they also know you then they can help you bring out your strengths in your application  

At this point the questions hadn’t got any easier. I just now had someone I could whinge at about my total inability to complete even a coherent sentence in response to some of them. I consider myself a fairly modest self-deprecating Brit — absolutely not the kind of guy who can self-promote for an award! Not even Oscar nominees are allowed to do that, anyway!

And that was the root of my problem – M. Le Mentor pulled me up again with a blinding revelation:

Lesson #2: Approach it as a JOB, not an award!

This type of application isn’t so much a justification of why you deserve to be named a Distinguished Engineer or the like. Think of it as an application for the position; approach it like a job application — if you want the job that is! And remember that the very act of applying elevates your visibility to an influential group – that, in itself, can be a huge career boost!

Brag a little — even shy Europeans can get pushy on job applications 😉 — but don’t oversell. Every “brag point” must have a reference and/or supporting material!

So by then it was getting toward the end of January and, while I understood what I needed to dredge up and document for the submission — namely every IT-related sneeze I might have made in the direction of someone — I figured it would take an evening at most to complete it.

I chose the evening of Friday, 5th February. The application had to be in by end of day, Monday 8th.

Lesson #3: Do not procrastinate!

By some act of a higher power, I did get my application in on time, but I spent at least 40 highly stressed and emotional hours over that weekend preparing the material. I do not advise anyone to do likewise – take your time, work on the application over several weeks, get feedback from your support group at every stage.

It was an interesting, even humbling, time. I resurrected projects I’d worked on, pieces I’d written, reviews I’d been named in — some up to 30 years ago and still out there for the finding. Each remembered “sneeze” triggered more worthy points to include, more long-forgotten email addresses to hit up for references. Seignor El Mentor — to his eternal credit and my eternal gratitude — was reachable the whole time and reviewed and corrected many drafts.

By Monday morning the packet (form + support material) was ready as a final draft. I sent it to the reviewers and, again, was lucky enough to have many helpful suggestions returned in time for inclusion in the final copy.

A final re-read, a triple-check of all the submission conditions (naming, packaging of support material, etc) — and off it went.

And then I forgot about it — couldn’t care less — got on with my daily life untouched by the extreme commitment of that weekend.

Yeah right — I was a bag of nerves!

I heard from a couple of the references I’d cited that they had been contacted – well, the DE review board was at least treating my application seriously! And then it arrived – the email that said “Congratulations, the terror and torture are to continue — you’ve got an interview, if you still want it” — or words to that effect! February 22nd at 2:30pm French time – 5 days away!

Back to the mentor and review team – how should I prepare?

Lesson #4: PREPARE! Prepare like never before!

This is your one chance to impress the committee, the board, the boss — whoever is making the big decision. Find out what their interest areas are and ways to pique that interest. Brush up on relevant topic areas and be prepared to use them. But also be natural, clear in word and thought – and don’t panic!  And be ready to talk about the work you want to accomplish in relation to the program. Again, it’s a job interview!

It’s a good thing for me, that it was a phone call and not a video call. I had three tablets, my laptop and reams of written notes strewn over the desk in the room in which I took the call. Most didn’t get referenced (of course) but some I was grateful to have! I was myself — so a bit sarky, always flippant — except when I needed to be serious.

The half hour flew by. It seemed like mere minutes. Inevitably, afterwards I replayed the interview in my head and, of course, vacillated between feeling very happy about points well made and very depressed by perceived weaknesses.

And then the waiting… just waiting… And then, the call.

Epilogue

Applying for a program, an award, a grant, a job that would change your career, is a big deal. It’s a genuine  job in itself that takes work — and guts — underpinned by a modicum of self belief, to do it right.

The payoff, for me, was becoming a DE — a tough, exhilarating, exhausting, somewhat frustrating, supremely rewarding job. You get thrust into public view; you get pulled into projects that you didn’t know existed by people you’ve never heard of, who always seem far more competent than you; you get invited to speak to internal and external forums; your blog posts get read by industry people; your opinion is sought and disseminated; my day job and my DE work constantly compete for my time.

After 6 months, I’m still amazed I made it to this level. I still sometimes wonder if “they got the wrong guy”. But I think I’m finally beginning to wear the mantle with some confidence, respecting and repaying the confidence that CSC has placed in me.

And I’ve got a cool gold-plated sundial on my bookshelf at home — there was an award after all!


Martin Bartlett–Distinguished Engineer

Martin Bartlett is a principal in CSC’s insurance practice in the South and Western Europe region. Since joining CSC in 1988, Martin has played a central role in the architecture, design, development, implementation, deployment and support of some of CSC’s most far-reaching strategic projects in the insurance domain. He is considered the chief technical architect of GraphTalk A.I.A. and is a strong advocate for cloud-deployed SaaS solutions and the API economy.

See Martin’s bio.

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