Like most people, early in my final year in Computer Science 4 I had secured a job with a “systems house” (as they were called then) as a programmer. However, after graduation, I had a change of heart and turned the job down, and then spent the summer thinking about what I really wanted to do. Much to the surprise of many people (including me), I ended up starting out as a salesman for Burroughs Machines Ltd (now Unisys) selling calculators and small business computers in Edinburgh.
After 5 years with Burroughs, I left and joined Hewlett Packard in 1980 as a salesman selling business computer systems in Scotland. At that time, HP was known more as an instrument company and was just entering the business computer market. It was a bit of a risk, but I really liked the company and the people I met. For the next 16 years, my sales responsibilities got progressively larger, and by the mid 90’s I was based in Geneva, Switzerland with responsibility for HP’s Computer Systems Group (at the time about a $2.5 billion business). In 1996, I was offered the opportunity to move with my family to California, as a Group General Manager, initially with responsibility for HP’s worldwide Technical Computing business. The following year I took on responsibility for HP’s Enterprise Systems business (primarily the UNIX server product line), and then in 1999, I was given responsibility for HP’s Software businesses. At that time, primarily as part of my own personal development plan, I joined the board of an independent software company, COGNOS, so I could learn more about the software industry. Also, working at HP enabled me to continue my formal education by attending executive development programs at INSEAD in France and Harvard University in Massachusetts.
In 2003, I left HP and decided not to take a full time job with another company, but instead decided to join the boards of what has now become a portfolio of private and public software companies at different stages of evolution. At the time of leaving HP, I joined the board of webMethods and became non-executive Chairman of the company the following year. It was a great experience to be a member of these two boards when Software AG acquired webMethods in 2007 and when IBM acquired COGNOS in 2008! In fact, four of the companies I have worked with as a board member since I left HP have been acquired.
Every day is different! A lot of the meetings and discussions take place by telephone, so if I’m not travelling to an in person quarterly board meeting (the companies I currently work with are based in Houston, Dallas, Paris, San Diego and the Bay Area), I will normally have several phone meetings during my day which I conduct from my home office.
However, my board work is not full-time (out of choice) and is generally planned well in advance. This has enabled me to share my experiences, and on several occasions I have co-presented a segment of the executive education program with one of the Faculty Directors at Stanford University, where we discussed the role of an independent director on a company board.
Another positive aspect of my current situation is that I have been able to be much more involved in the teenage years of our twin daughters, who were 13 years old when I left HP, and who have just gone to University in California earlier this year. It was great to be able to watch them play sport or drive them to places in the afternoons!
The most memorable time was when I was general manager of HP’s UK Computer Systems business from 1990 - 1994. Many of you will remember that in 1990 the UK experienced a major recession (similar to this past year) with many household names (unfortunately, many of HP’s customers) simply disappearing (remember the retailer Coloroll?). Our business had collapsed very suddenly, and I had a “near death experience” as far as my career was concerned.
Looking back, I learnt a lot at that time, but I vividly remember reaching the conclusion that just applying more energy to doing the same things we used to do, while, of course, blaming the economy probably wasn’t going to work! We implemented a major change in our business strategy, which by 1994 had turned the UK region’s sales performance around. In fact, this transformation was turned into a case study by HP Corporate Training in the US.
The “greatest achievement” part was that following that business turnaround, nearly every member of my management team at the time was either promoted to a new assignment or was given a significant increase in their responsibility.
Simply this - there are many ways to use what you learnt while studying for your degree. Doing what gets you excited and makes you want to get up in the morning trumps following a traditional career path every time.
Well obviously it was meeting Pat, my wife of now 33 years who will be reading this! She was in third year when I was in my fourth year of our computer science degree course, and we first met when I sold her my old (but well used, of course) text books. This was perhaps an early indication of my career to come!
I also remember in the evenings submitting my computer science class projects to the ERCC in Alison House in Nicholson Square as a batch of punched cards, with a turnaround time of between two and four hours before you got the printout! What else could you do but wait patiently in the student union bar?
Finally, throughout my time at Edinburgh I lived in the recently opened Milne’s Court Halls of Residence on the Royal Mile. With Edinburgh Castle at one end and Holyrood Palace at the other, that was quite a privilege!
First Published December 2009
This article was published on Jan 12, 2011