Today, I turn 50. I can’t tell you how I feel about this because I wrote this post in advance and I plan to just publish and move on, either in good spirits or morosely contemplating my mortality. If you’re reading this, Mission Accomplished either way.
Originally, I was going to be a librarian. By which I mean that I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do after university so doing a library post-grad at Manchester Metropolitan University was more appealing than signing on, which is what I was doing.
SIDENOTE: some people are snotty about some of the lower-paid roles I post on the DPO jobs, and are riled by my emphasis on what I do being a job, not a mission. I’ve been on the dole twice. Work – any work that you can do – is better. I don’t care if you disagree. Having a mission wouldn’t have helped me. Doing a course I wasn’t initially interested in was the practical solution I needed. I learned a huge amount on it. I met some really excellent people. It led to practical experience that I still benefit from today.
I did two years at the North-West Film Archive on temporary contracts dependant on HEFCE money, which inevitably dried up. I jumped to Stockport Libraries to be a cataloguer but I was again on a temporary contract. I wanted to buy a house, so I needed a permanent job. The ICO advertised some generic sounding jobs and one caught my eye. I didn’t know anything about data protection, nor did I care, but to be fair, I had always been a sincere supporter of Freedom of Information. As it turned out, this made absolutely no difference to what happened.
My partner was working near Wilmslow. I was getting to Stockport on the bus and couldn’t afford a car. It seemed like a match made in pragmatic heaven. I passed the first-round test and got an interview. If Stockport had made my contract permanent a couple of months earlier, I would probably still be in libraries, and none of you would know who I am. Ironically, someone did put the effort in to make it happen, but it was confirmed slightly too late. It’s like Sliding Doors, except with more pies.
In my desperation to get out of temporary work, I’d had loads of interviews including two at Manchester University with the same awful academic who specialised (I discovered later) in tormenting candidates. It was excellent training and I was by now pretty good at interviews. My problem was that I lacked the right experience for the library and IT roles I’d been going for. But – and I don’t mean this as a slight – the ICO has always had jobs where there isn’t an ideal CV. I’d applied for one of them.
As it happens, the interview panel were very decent and when I answered questions about records management without making a fool of myself, I had a very good feeling about my chances. I was told later that my interview was fine but having a non-zero amount of RM knowledge had made the difference. I wouldn’t have been able to answer those questions without knowledge I gained at MMU and the Archive. A friend thinks that this is evidence that I was always destined to end up working on information rights; I just think it’s a happy coincidence and the universe is a swirling vortex of chaos.
But leaving that aside, my adventures in information rights were about to begin.
I was 28 when I walked into Wycliffe House sometime in April 2001 to begin a brief, undistinguished stint as an ICO policy manager. I don’t think I achieved anything beyond attaining the reality distortion field that had people automatically paying unearned attention to me for about a decade. If you work / have worked at the ICO, everyone thinks you know what you’re talking about.
Even now, if I mention in passing having worked there 20 years ago, I can see some people perk up as if it means something. Yes, many excellent people have passed through the ICO’s doors and I am honoured by the refugees who follow and interact with me here. But Ye Gods, ICO experience is hardly a guarantee of quality. Have you seen John Edwards and Liz Denham? Anyway, after a couple of years, I decided to apply for a better paid DPO-style job in Derbyshire County Council. With more money and acting as the in-house specialist, it seemed like a good move.
Except that Wycliffe is 20 minutes from my house door-to-door and the fastest I ever got to or from Matlock was 1 hour and 25 minutes, driving a totally unreliable car that broke down every couple of months. There are no trains. After 15 exhausting months, Wigan Council advertised a DPO job, and I got it for two reasons.
First, I am actually not bad at this stuff. Seriously, I can talk about data protection and FOI for extended periods without making an arse of myself. Second, I was born and grew up in Wigan, so my face fit. I worked there for the five happiest years of my 9-5 working life and then one year that I imagined was the worst (nothing like a big security breach to teach you about people, good and bad).
It wasn’t the worst because I reacted not by quitting to be a consultant as originally planned but by chickening out and getting a better paid job in the NHS. I have never been less suited to a job and a sector than I was to be Information Governance Manager for NHS Manchester. I hated every second of it. I hated the top-down culture, the internal politics, and most of all, I hated the Toolkit.
Other people do just fine in these jobs but I was out of my depth. I honestly don’t think it was my fault and it definitely wasn’t theirs (on paper and in the interview, I looked fine) but it was only when Liz Truss became Prime Minister that I started to feel better about my time there. Mercifully, Andrew Lansley decided to abolish the Primary Care Trusts and so nobody blinked at me leaving.
I bailed out to go freelance in April 2011, fully intending to get another ‘proper’ job once I got my head together. I never quite achieved that, so here we are. For years, I mainly worked for [redacted] but eventually that relationship went sour for reasons I will take to the grave* and so in March 2018, I went solo.
* Just ask me face-to-face and those beans get spilled.
I had two days booked in my calendar and no mailing list. I had a decent cushion in the company bank account and I am a diabolical ego monster so I thought it would work out OK, but even so, just like when I gave up librarianship, or when I stopped having a proper job, it felt like I had torched my career again.
Five years on, I’m still here. That’s all I can really say but I’m happy to be able to say it. When I started writing this I thought I would be telling you the crucial lessons my career has taught me. Reading back, I don’t have a career. I find people who talk about their working life as a ‘journey’ bewildering. I’m not on a journey. I’m in a pinball machine. This is just a description of a series of random decisions and reactions.
If I have a message to share with you from this contemplative mood, it’s that it’s OK not to have one. It’s OK to do a job and do it well but not be on a mission to change the world. It’s OK not to be a “founder”. Work doesn’t have to be like climbing a mountain, a linear path taking you ever higher. It’s OK to just bounce around. I’ve blown up my ‘career’ multiple times. I’ve made terrible decisions. I’ve been stabbed in the back. But while I might be an old git now, there’s still time to make plenty more mistakes.
For anyone reading this who feels rootless, who lacks direction or purpose, don’t beat yourself up about it. Not everyone has or needs a mission – and a mission can be about your family, your kids, your hobby or your beliefs, not your work. Sometimes, something falls into your lap. Sometimes, you need to take action. I’m not advocating being passive and letting things happen to you; my CV is marked by a series of active, conscious decisions. Several of them were terrible but I don’t regret anything that I’ve done.
I don’t say this because in some magical sense they’ve brought me to where I am now because I’m not in the absolutely best place (I was happier in 2019 for guessable reasons). I say this because everything I’ve described above taught me something. Getting my Library post-grad and going to the ICO and Wigan were huge positives; I’m glad I worked in libraries in the end, and Derbyshire would have been a great job for someone who had an easier journey. But all the negative things contributed to my knowledge and experience as well as the positives. Even getting shafted a few times turned out to be useful in the long run. I’ve got a varied background and I can draw on a lot of different things. I may have ended up as a humble roving artisan rather than some titan of the sector with staff at my beck and call, but I’m not entirely useless and I’m grateful for that.
Anyway, this didn’t turn out like I expected, but I turned it out. So if you’ve read this far, thanks very much.