The fog: student to professional
Being a student of DAM and being a professional in the field are two very different things. It sounds obvious, but why is it true? And what’s the impact of the phase change?
The photo above shows what it can feel like when you transition from a study to a work environment, especially if you go to work in a massive corporation. There are big corporations, and then there’s Shell. The company employees over 10,000 people just to manage its sites around the world. That’s more than the total number of people employed by SpaceX, NetFlix and CNN across their organisation. If you ever go to work at such a corporation, spare yourself the trouble of trying to conceptualise its scale. It’s impossible. You need to build up a map or it’ll be like reaching out into a foggy London: even if you do it, you’re not likely to understand what you touch anyway. Instead, focus on your immediate team, the people you have to interact with every day. Once you’ve got that you can start scaling up.
I joined Shell partway through the implementation of a new DAM system. When you join any organisation, especially a big one where there are many people more experienced than you, who understand the organisational context better, it’s normal to feel deferential. However, it’s important to remember something: you’ve been hired because you have something they need. Joining the team as the sole ‘pure DAM’ person has placed me in a unique position. I’m not as generally experienced in technology as some of the team and yet I’m also the voice of authority on DAM best practice. This complex interplay between mastery and apprenticeship is a complex ambiguity as it sees all people as masters of their domain yet apprentices in others. Occupying both roles is conceptually problematic in an era in which people increasingly like simple, even simplistic, definitions and categorisation.
As a student, the most challenging thing was meeting deadlines. It’s no coincidence that the most difficult period of studying was the period with 6 deadlines in three months while I was working 27 hours a week. As a DAM professional, the most challenging thing is keeping command of my calendar. If there’s a space in it, someone will try to fill it. You need to use controlled disagreeability to protect your space. Without that space, it becomes very difficult to think clearly enough to be productive. DAM is a complex field, full of interactions between technology, requirements, workflow, and organisational culture. As a result, some tasks just do not fit well into a 30 minute gap between meetings: you need time to process them properly, UAT or taxonomy changes, for example. Feeling that you have the authority to protect your time is every bit as important as it is to feeling that you have the authority to speak on your area of expertise. Meetings are for command and control, and aren’t a substitute for productivity.
A lack of space to understand the changes between studying and working is also difficult. As I’ve illustrated, and I’ve only scratched the surface in this post, there are real differences between study and work. The day after I submitted my dissertation, I went straight back to work for Theresa Regli as I had a deadline. I had 5 days away in Paris the following month, but that was only enough to enable me to relax, not enough to enable me to consider what changes I might experience when I secured a job in DAM. Over Christmas, though, I had 11 days at home in London. I focused on stopping. No deadlines. No expectations. No calendar. Taking that time enabled me to understand some of what I was experiencing. It enabled me to understand that I was still carrying stress from studying. It enabled me to reset my goals for the future. It enabled me to re-engage with reading (which had been abandoned 3 earlier) and creative writing (abandoned 5 months earlier). It also gave me time to understand that there are reasons why only 16% of autistic adults are in full time employment.
All that mattered to me in studying was securing a distinction. Anything less would have felt like failure. I was willing to work as hard as might possibly be needed right to the end. Some nights I went to bed resentful that I needed to sleep, so focused was I on making progress with my dissertation. I lived the last two months of studying in crisis mode, willing to do anything I felt I needed to do to get through this period. Submitting my dissertation was both a triumph and a disaster. Part of my goal was achieved, but there was nothing more to do, so I was robbed of the greatest source of meaning in my life. With no specific goals, I felt adrift. I knew the focus now had to shift to finding a job, but that’s still vague. What job? Where? Two months later, I started work at Shell, a great opportunity for me to put what I’d learned into practice. Two years of investment in studying had led to a great job just two months after I’d finished studying. The next big goal had come with surprising ease. But it’s hard to catch a breath when you feel like an Apollo astronaut strapped into the command module atop multiple stages of massive engines blasting you upward. This isn’t a complaint, things are going very well for me, after all. However, when everything is constantly in motion, it’s very hard to find the space to breathe and assess what’s going on around you.
That time to breathe over Christmas, cold mornings in Regent’s Park, a deep tissue massage, reading Jung, visiting the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum, and writing, was a relief. Alongside this, I got my whiteboards out again to try to determine ‘what next?’ Returning to work in January after the longest time away from work or study I’d had in over 3 years was quite hard, but I’ve come back different. I have my purpose back, there are goals to achieve, things to learn, and things to do.
So if you’re a student just starting to think about your dissertation seriously, I’d like to say this: yes, give it everything you can no matter what it takes. It may be the last opportunity you have for years to dedicate yourself to a single idea. But once it’s done, try to carve out a couple of weeks between that and returning to work. You’ll need to rest. You’ll need time to start mapping out the world that lies out there in the fog.