Sunday, 21 December 2014

I'm moving...

Blogger is a bit limited these days. You'd think with all of its money and resource, Google could develop a better website creator than Blogger.

So I've moved.

Besides. This is a brand new chapter of my life and I think 'dogsbody to doctorate' doesn't accurately describe the direction I'm headed in any longer. So I'm starting afresh with a new blog, new design and a fresh perspective.

Head on over to my new home:

Those who've known me a while will recognise the now common play on my first name. I'll never tire of it now.

The autodidact: Part 1

  1. a self-taught person

When I was a little kid, my parents bought me a teeny weeny keyboard one year for Christmas. It was about the size of a credit card and had numbered buttons on that you pressed in a particular order (as per the song sheet you got with it) to play different tunes. They were tunes like Twinkle Twinkle and Mary Had a Little Lamb - real simple basic tunes, but I loved this little keyboard so much they bought me a slightly bigger one soon after. Then came another bigger one until finally I ended up with a full size Yamaha keyboard. So I went to JG Windows in Newcastle and bought some keyboard books and taught myself how to play the keyboard. I reached a respectable level of skill before my parents offered to send me to lessons to develop my talent even further. I had lessons for a few months before I gave up and stopped going.

I didn't enjoy the rigidity of the lesson structure. I spent too long - in my eyes - doing scales and going over things I could already do. I see now that it was to help build up my tolerance and keep my fingers nimble, but the fact was that I was better learning in my own way. So what if I didn't put the right fingers on the right keys - I was still playing the tune properly... It's the same now with typing. I was taught how to touch type and did a GCSE in typing, but now I can't touch type to save my life but can still knock out about 60 words per minute using my own unique way.

I've always been like this. I learn best when I can do it my own way and I'm really good at learning things as a result. My continual thirst for knowledge really benefits from this too. I suppose that's how I ended up at The Open University - despite being given all of the information you need and any amount of support you could wish for it's still up to you to do the studying in your own time and in your own way.

Now that I'm part-way through my paid-for courses I'm turning my thoughts to how I can continue on a far more cost-effective path once they're done. I have quite a few options, all of which I'm really eager to get stuck into.

Lately - mostly since 2012 - a trend has emerged for Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOC's as they're more commonly known. I've completed a few already just as tasters, and there are a wealth of companies offering them. They're sort of like bite-sized chunks of bigger modules offered by some of the world's leading universities and although they don't offer any formal qualification or credit points they're an absolutely ideal way to build up knowledge in either a broad range of subjects or even specialist areas. Some have designated start and finish dates, some are just a 'sign up and go' scenario but there are plenty of companies to choose from, each with a different offering and some with ever more interesting ways to claim some kind of additional value from their courses to the world at large.

Courses are all very well and good, but there are still certain things I want to learn more about that aren't readily available as courses and provable learning. I want to learn more about programming in Visual Basic for example. I've dabbled a little bit when re-writing a Time in Motion sheet earlier this year, but I would really like to get to grips with it properly and not have to rely on getting the answers from Excel forums. I would also like to learn more about particular training methods, however finding courses about developing as a trainer are more difficult and so I'll probably have to resort to learning from books and Internet sources.

The difficulty with self-directed learning like that is how you prove it's value. You don't get a qualification at the end of it, you don't even get a completion certificate so, aside from the natural passage of time to allow you to fully demonstrate these newly acquired skills how can you prove you have them?

This is what I'll have to to a bit of research into. There will likely be a way to claim some valid value from completely autodidactic learning, but as yet I don't know what it is.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Translational Momentum

I've got momentum again! After passing my Prince2 Foundation exam on Sunday I've felt spurred on again. A few people have congratulated me - one in particular seemed quite excited that I'd passed - and it's given me the impetus to carry on while the going's good. It feels good to have educational energy again.

With all the changes following my exit from my last job I completely lost my way and started concentrating on other things (running, for one. I did LOTS of running in 2013). I had always expected that I would never stop learning and I would be a student in some guise forever, so disappearing from the learning arena so unexpectedly and for so long took its toll on my confidence.

I'm so out of practice at studying. I found it really hard to concentrate on what I was trying to learn during the Foundation study, and I found it even harder to get myself sat down in front of the computer to actually do the studying in the first place. I just kept thinking of the satisfaction I used to get from my OU study; the happiness at having really nailed a module and how good it felt to get a good mark on your TMA (as they were called in those days) and it helped keep me planted at the laptop.

So now that I've passed the first level, I thought it would be wise to carry that momentum forward so I've booked the Practitioner exam for the 18th January. I figured that I'd book it for a couple of weeks into the New Year so that I've got the Crimbo hols to do the requisite studying for it. I've also cashed in the voucher for my Six Sigma course so I have access to that from now so the aim is that once I've sat the Practitioner exam I'll be able to knuckle down for that.

Perhaps putting the rationale behind my decision to do these particular courses down on paper [sic] will help make more sense of it in my own mind; somehow consolidate my reasoning behind doing what may seem like a bit of a mish-mash of subjects. I'm known for having done a mish-mash of subjects in the past, from my foundation degree in Quantity Surveying to my Open degree with social science and philosophy and a few more random picks like psychology, earth sciences and ICT, but none of these were strictly for career progression; these were purely for personal gain, but now I'm trying to concentrate my efforts on a more coherent plan that will contribute to a more secure and structured future.

Prince2 is the obvious one - I could see that the company was likely headed down a project-based route and wanted to make sure I could offer some kind of value should that end up the case. Despite being turned down for company funding, e-Careers offered me the full Prince2 Foundation and Practitioner course with exams, PLUS the Six Sigma Green Belt package for £950 payable in 4 instalments. Considering that The Knowledge Academy - one of the more common companies to learn Prince with via a 5 day intensive classroom  based course - charge £950 for their full Prince package this seemed like too good a deal to pass up. I decided that the £1000 up-front cost would likely pay dividends in the future and was worth the outlay. Compared to the cost of other less vocational courses it seemed to represent good value for money when considered against potential returns.

I applied internally for a Projects Officer role in the summer. I didn't get it because of my lack of actual project experience, but it was the General Manager who interviewed me and he gave me some tremendous feedback which really buoyed me. He assured me that there would be additional opportunities on a more team-based scenario to get involved in projects in the near future and this just confirmed to me that I had made the right decision choosing to do Prince.

The second course I signed up for at the same time - the Six Sigma Green Belt - seemed a little trickier to justify at the time, but is going to end up being a really clever choice on my part. I had spent a bit of time looking at some profiles on Linked In, and had looked at the types of qualifications people had and I often saw Six Sigma twinned with Prince2 so it seemed a natural course to investigate further. When I looked it up and saw it was all about process improvements, efficiencies and error reductions it sounded really appealing to my inner-geek. I'm actually quite interested in elements like that and thought if I could foresee myself heading down a management route it would be a useful set of tools to have in my kit. I toiled between the yellow belt and the green belt (two different levels with black belt being the highest) and decided if I was going to do it, I might as well go for the higher of the two. At the time I signed up for it the team was brand new, I had barely been made Lead Analyst and there was no need for me to be thinking of process improvements or error reductions. Was there?

When my new team first started, our work volume doubled almost overnight. Since then it's been a constant battle against a raging torrent of work. All things considered, we've done really well. The team is profitable, we get good feedback on quality from our clients, and our staff are a bunch of really intelligent and switched on people. But there are some fairly major gaps that need filling. Because of our constant fire-fighting we've not had any opportunity to conduct additional training or follow up on training already done because we simply haven't had time. Our Training and Development Lead has been busy with other teams and I think, because we've had to concentrate all of our efforts on getting up to date with our ever-burgeoning workload, we've been kinda left to it.

I've made mental (and actual) notes of all of these gaps I've noticed over the 11 months we've been 'in business' with some rough ideas on how to address them even though that wasn't part of my job (at the time), but now that I'm Training and Project Lead I'm really thankful I started jotting notes down all those months ago because now they provide an index of issues to help me as I prepare to start this Six Sigma course and prepare to get stuck into my new role in the new year. It seems my decision in March to buy the Six Sigma course - while fuelled mostly by a mix of curiosity as to what it was all about and a slight desperation to find something that would give me an edge - has proved to be one of the wisest I made at the time because I'll be reaping the benefits in no time.

So at least I can provide some reasoning behind the two courses I've paid actual real-life money for. It would be foolish of me to sign up for all-and-sundry courses and spend a fortune I don't really have. I have to be really selective with this, but also very cunning. I may need to invest a bit to achieve a grander plan and that's fine, as long as there's solid justification behind it.

I'm still fairly sure I can get some really incredible added value from other means too. There's a growing trend for more auto didactic styles of learning. They're more difficult to prove, but still not impossible. Now there's something for me to give some thought to.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

*breathe out... and relax... again*

I'm transported back to a post I wrote back in the day about having finally finished and submitted a TMA.

So here goes... "breathe out... and relax". I passed my exam. It's subject to confirmation that I didn't try to cheat (they use your web cam and microphone to record your activity, so unless they think one of the cats was mouthing the answers to me I should be okay) but as far as the actual scoring of the test goes, I passed. By quite a good margin too.

I finished answering the questions with 17 minutes to go of my allotted 60. Foolish, you may think, that I exited the exam with so long left, but I knew if I went back through my responses I'd end up doubting myself and run the risk of mucking it all up. So I went with my gut and ended it once I'd given a response to them all.

Everyone who knew I was sitting the exam was sure I would pass, but for once, I genuinely wasn't. Perhaps my past failures have bred a more apprehensive nature in me. Perhaps I feel I've been away from education for too long now to go back. I cannot describe the relief washing over me right now knowing that I was wrong and everyone else was right.

This exam is the start of a whole new direction for me. After this I move straight on to the Practitioner level of the qualification which will see me gain the requisite skills to fully assist the project manager and potentially play more of a role in company-wide projects. But that's not all I've got planned.I have a burgeoning list of things I want to do - both qualifications I've got in the pipeline and methods, techniques and new skills I want to learn on a more auto didactic basis. I get far too carried away with myself and my incredible friend Hannah regularly tries to rein me in by telling me to concentrate on one thing at a time, and she's right. I know she's right. But I really do struggle with this.

I'm nowhere close to being in the kind of financial situation where I could afford to pick up my postgraduate studies again. I think that's a long way off to be truthful so for the time being I'll have to make the best of any alternatives that are out there to me. I have a couple of small qualifications in the running to follow on from the Prince2 Practitioner. A Green Belt in Six Sigma is next on the agenda, along with a Level 2 qualification in Lean Organisation Management Techniques. The latter is actually a BTEC. Who'd have thought - 34 years old and studying for a BTEC! The qualification is actually free via Vision2Learn and is worth 15 credit points so to be honest, I'm not going to look that particular gift horse in the mouth and it will teach me some good foundation skills for my new role. There are umpteen other things I want to do too, but I'm taking heed of Hannah's advice and concentrating on one thing at a time. I'll get these actual qualifications done and dusted first. Then, and only then, will I move onto spare-time learning and/or something bigger.

I've got to prioritise here, and episodes of learning that have tangible outcomes are by far the most sensible for me to allocate my resource to at the present time.

It's almost like I'm project managing my own progression.

Friday, 12 December 2014

A not-so-lazy Sunday afternoon ahead

I'm studying again. Well, I'm trying to study but my stupid ancient laptop keeps refusing to believe it's connected to the Internet which puts a rather big hurdle in my way. I'll have to find a way around it because I've got an exam on Sunday.

Hang on, let's rewind the calendar a bit. Let's go back to the beginning of the year.

In February I set up desk on my new team. It was a brand new team for the company working on a product unfamiliar to the company. It was quite an uncertain time to be honest; we weren't sure if the product would be a success or if our client would continue our contract beyond the initial 3 month trial period, so there was always a big question mark hovering over the team. Given this uncertainty, I tried to think of a way I could make myself slightly less dispensable to the company (having gone through redundancy less than a year earlier I didn't fancy my chances again). I looked at the company as a whole and tried to find a niche I would work my way into. That's not to say that I wouldn't go back to the team I had come from, but I preferred the idea of moving forward given that I was selected for this new team in the first place.

The niche I was looking for showed itself in the form of Project Management. I could see that some of the departments were starting to go down a project-centric route, and after a bit of research and discussion with a good friend who has a lot of PM experience, it seemed a logical and cost-effective route to go down. A website called e-Careers had an offer on their Prince2 Project Management course at the time, and so, armed with a justification in mind, I sought an audience with the Operations Manager, pitched my idea and asked if the company would be willing to fund my study. He said no. So I signed up for it anyway.

I feel I ought to add, the company did put me through a different PM course - the APM Introduction to Project Management course which proved incredibly interesting and has been quite useful, but I had already seen that a lot of PM jobs specifically asked for Prince2 so I considered it an investment in a more commonly used framework.

I sit the exam for the first part of the Prince2 qualification on Sunday, and frankly, I'm nervous. Given my sudden exit from education and the massive change in career path since, I have concerns over my ability to do this. I've fallen into the world of business purely by accident and find myself frantically waving my arms around trying to figure out where I am. What if I fail at something as basic as this? What if I've just been out of the education game for too long now?

If I manage to pass this first Foundation level, then I move on to the Practitioner level of the qualification which is slightly more involved. But given that I was made up to 'Training and Project Lead' only a month or so ago I really need to make this happen. My manager gave me this role with the knowledge that I'm doing my Prince2 course, so in my head the continuation of this role is contingent on me gaining this qualification. It's probably not, and even with the knowledge I have I can provide support to the Projects Officer, but I'll be of far greater use if I get this qualification.

I dearly hope I manage to pull it together on Sunday. There's more resting on it than I can bring myself to put down in writing just yet, and passing it will undoubtedly unearth the thirst in me that I thought was buried the day I withdrew from Durham Uni.

I have plans. Big plans. Once again I'm trying to forge a path into my future that leads somewhere and doesn't just meander through the troughs and valleys I'm so familiar with. Finally, someone has pointed a finger in a direction completely new and uncharted to me but the proverbial grass is so lush over here and I'm truly loving it.

I really need to pass this exam on Sunday. It's the catalyst for a truly exciting looking future.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

A Little Miss Management

So once again I'm finding myself at another fork in the career road. Not long after making it to Deputy Team Manager (a role I had been coveting for a good few months), my ops manager threw me a curve ball. I had tried to prepare myself for a journey into management; joined the Chartered Management Institute and was about to start some volunteering, subscribed to some management newsletters and was trying to figure out ways of improving my technique so that I could make myself a better manager than I was giving myself credit for.

And then the curve ball hit. In the summer the company put me through a Train the Trainer course and I became one of a group of people the company could call upon to deliver training. I haven't actually carried out any company-wide training because of time-restraints within the team, but I've done a lot of training and presentations for my department, and it turns out I'm actually pretty darned good at it. Even earlier than the TTT course it had obviously become apparent to the ops manager that I have a bit of talent when it comes to writing training programmes, juggling departmental figures and coming up with ways to try and improve processes in the team, because about 2 months ago the ops manager asked if I'd like to take a side-step away from management and into training. It's something that the group who owns the company had identified as a 'high priority need', and given my knowledge of the department and my apparent skill at training etc. I seemed the obvious choice; after all, it's probably easier to back fill a management position than find someone else to do training.

I had to give it some serious, I must admit. The thought of standing in front of groups of people day in, day out, delivering training fills me with dread. Just because I'm good at something, doesn't mean I enjoy it. I'm much more interested in the juggling the figures side of it, and the - what I loving refer to as - fiddling about with spreadsheets. I was firmly assured that my expectations of the role were right and that I wasn't going to be delivering training constantly (although it would be a bit part of my role in various forms), so I graciously accepted. After a 6-or-so week lead-in so far with another 2 month handover to the new DTM ahead of me, on Monday 1st December  I 'officially' start my new role as Training and Project Lead.

In the 6-or-so weeks since I accepted I've written down a hundred different areas I want to focus on; areas I'm aware need some attention to improve processes / quality / efficiency on the team and I'm itching to get started and put my head-bursting amount of ideas to some kind of practical use.

The difficulty with it all is that it's yet another side step for me. I'm worried that I'm going to end up taking so many side steps that I'll never move forward. The saving grace this time is that I was actually INVITED to do this by a manager. Someone actually recognised some skill or talent in me and invited me to do this before it was even on the table as an option. I had been almost blindly following down the management path because I thought it was the only real option within the team and in my haste to get somewhere I just kept on going. It's only now that this new option was given to me that I see why it's a far more suitable choice and one I'm more likely to be able to develop into something better. THIS is my chance. The management route has developed me in ways I couldn't have expected within the last 10 months. It has given me a certain confidence in myself and an assurance of my ability to lead but it's not really for me. I'm not saying I wouldn't have made a great manager because to be honest, I think I would've. I COULD'VE done it, but as I said earlier, there's a difference between being good at something and enjoying it and I don't think I would've truly enjoyed management. I see now that I like getting to the end of the day and having something to show for my day's work. You rarely get that in management because most of your day is spent checking other people's work and making sure your team is doing their job and the client is happy. In this new role I'll have something tangible to show for my efforts - a new training material or feedback sheets from a training session I've carried out, or some completed documents for a project I'm working on. It's measurable, and I'm all about measuring progress.

I'm just hoping that my enthusiasm and skill for the job will keep me moving forward. It's really difficult at this stage to see where it might lead and I'm having to stop myself thinking too much about it because it will drive me mad. For the time being I'm just going to have to get on with it and make sure I do it well and hope that it will naturally lead to something in the future.

I preach to the analysts in my team that if you want to get noticed and if you want progression, the best thing you can do is carry on doing your normal job, but do it REALLY well. You're far more likely to get notice for doing your actual job better than anyone else than for volunteering for all and sundry but doing a half-baked job if it. It's about time I started practising what I preach.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Laws of Serendipity

"Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;"

When hubby and I were on holiday a couple of years back we were walking along a beach on the Arbroath coast and saw an entrance to what looked like a cave.

We got to the entrance and stared into the pitch blackness in front of us. It could have been infinite. We had only the faint flash on hubby's phone to guide us through and had no idea of the terrain we would face under-foot or if it even led anywhere. We shuffled into the entrance, me squeezing his hand so hard as if letting go of it would see me somehow plunged into the murky depths of hell. Onward we shuffled, upwards, further into the darkness until we began to bear left, tracing the wall as we went. On a sharp bend in the wall suddenly it was there, right in front of us as if it always had been - light!

The S-shape of the cave meant that light couldn't pass around the corners and resulted in the pitch-blackness we entered into. In fact, the cave was very short and joined on to another secret beach at the other side which was like a little private oasis. What originally seemed like such a frightening prospect (I'm petrified of the dark) turned out to be short-lived and unworthy of such fear.

As my head begins to fill up with thoughts about studying business and how to go about it, I sort of feel like I'm at the mouth of the cave again. It's pitch black. I've no idea what the terrain is like. I've even less idea what's on the other side of it, but if I stay where I am I'll always be where I've always been.

And so I'm taking this leap of faith and stepping into an unknown world. Having experienced what can be on the other side of the cave, I freely admit to feeling a bit excited at where this might lead, but I'm also fearful that with no glimmer of light to guide me, I might just lose my footing.