My talk to Priory School Leavers, November 2011

priory logoHaving a clear-out recently, I found a talk I gave to the GSCE leavers from my old school Priory in Lewes in November 2011. It was for their certificate evening, where they celebrated exam success and general all round good eggs. They asked me to give a short talk before the Mayor gave out the silverware. I chose the theme, roughly, of uncertainty.

Here’s the text:

I left Priory in 1994. 17 years ago. Half a lifetime ago for me. A whole lifetime ago for you. 1994. Not a year that the history books will dedicate much space too. No famous assassinations, no memorable cataclysms, not much at all springs to mind. But an important year, nonetheless, for me.

1994 should be justifiably remembered and revered as the year that Oasis released their first album, the soaring and supreme classic Definitely Maybe. 1994 was the year that also brought us the magnificent Parklife from Blur. Between them, those two albums represent the highwater mark of Britpop and the start of Cool Britannia.

And surprisingly, I can distinctly remember buying Definitely Maybe. The much missed John Peel played a track on his radio show one night and the very next day I went out and bought the album. And buying it marked a significant milestone in my life. It was the last time I ever bought music in an analogue format. You see, I bought Definitely Maybe on tape.

You may not remember tapes. It occurs to me that you are, at the age you are, the first group of Britons who can truly claim to have been Born Digital. Born Digital. You have always had computers in your life.

The first time I encountered a computer was at primary school. It was a big beige BBC Micro, that was wheeled into the classroom on a trolley with great ceremony. The school only had one computer. And we children would sit on the carpet and watch in awe as the teacher (who had probably only learnt how to use the thing a week before) cautiously operated it on our behalf. Huge delicate floppy discs whirred as programs loaded. That machine had significantly less technical capabilities than your mobile phone.

And, of course, we had a computer at home at some point. That would load tapes. But it wasn’t connected to the internet. There was no internet at all unless you were an academic, a soldier or a spy. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t theorise the world wide web until 1989.

Mine was an analogue childhood. Of FM radios, video tapes and letters, in envelopes, with stamps on. We would phone people at home and just hope they were in. There were no texts to say you were running late. The only digital thing I had was a digital watch. And that was only digital because it didn’t have hands, but little digits on a small LCD screen.

Some people in the web industry say that people are either digital natives or a digital immigrants. I’m a digital immigrant. Just about everything I know about computers and the web, I have learnt as an adult. When I left Priory, I had never surfed the web, never sent an email, never used a mobile phone or a laptop. Devices like an iPad or a Kindle, could be seen on Star Trek in the 23rd century. Not in the home.

And this is one thing I can’t emphasise enough. If you don’t know what it is you want to do yet. Don’t worry. I have spent my entire working life in the web industry but when I was sat there where you are now, I’d never used the web.

My most significant job to date was working for eBay from 1999 until 2006. I was part of the team that founded eBay here in the UK. I got that job by lucky coincidence, and if I am honest, a few white lies. But It has proved to be the most fortuitous opportunity of my life. I got it by word of mouth, I didn’t offer a CV.

I am neither particularly technical or at all competent as a coder or programmer. But the internet has opened up thousands of new careers that simply didn’t exist before. Marketers, strategists, project managers, designers, writers. I have been one of the lucky beneficiaries of the emergence of this new industry and I’d expect that a fair few of you too will do some similar jobs to me in years to come.

Many of the jobs you will do, the organisations you will work for, don’t exist yet. So your primary task is to keep your eyes open so you can spot them when they do. Or to start them yourself.

The other dramatic way in which the new technologies have proved to be revolutionary in the workplace regards HOW people work. Email, Skype, instant messenger and cheap international calls means that traditional 9 – 5 desk jockey jobs are waning, even if they are not yet entirely dead.

Remote working, flexible working, working from home and virtual teams of people who work across different timezones and continents, but rarely meet, are increasingly normal. Here are a few examples. I often write web content for a woman in America. I have never met the woman I’m working for. All the files whizz across the Atlantic by email and we regularly talk on Skype. Very often, in the web industry, if you’re developing a new website or service, your coders and developers, the techies if you like, will be in India or Pakistan. You’ll likely never meet them.

These changes do also put pressures on employees and workers. The conference call is a curse that has no cure. For all but the most disciplined, the temptation to fire up the iPhone or the Blackberry and check your work emails at the weekends or in the evening is overwhelming. Work has encroached into leisure time and the boundaries have blurred to a worrying extent. The notion that people can be reached 24/7 is not a development we should welcome.

The third, and most exciting way, I think, that the internet has revolutionised work are the opportunities it opens up to people who want to start their own enterprise. Gone are the days when you needed premises, a bank loan and a good suit and tie to go into business.

With the help of the web, a good idea can become a small business with no outlay and a few clicks in moments. In these hard times, I’ve noticed a trend towards people having a small business on the side, generating a bit of cash on top of a full time. Only once these businesses generate proper money, do people give up the day job.

I reckon that each and every one of you will, at some point in your life, start your own business. There really is nothing to stop you. Having a little sideline is also good insurance. The job for life is dead. You will probably have 3 or more careers in your life. You will be laid off, made redundant or sacked probably more than once. Having a wide range of income and talents could save your skin at some point. Don’t forget, if you need any encouragement. Two thirds of the world’s billionaires are self-made.

So whilst these forward leaps for technology have brought great utility and amazing opportunities. They also bring risks. I have quite deliberately avoided giving too much advice in this talk. But this is one key word from the wise. It will serve you very well indeed. Be discreet on Facebook.

Never have there been more platforms to talk about yourself, offer an opinion, share your creativity. But there is a thin line between a bit of fun and ruination.

Information on the internet will last forever, it is laid down like wine and stored until someone dusts it off, nothing is forgotten, anything you ever say, do, post or share online will be remembered.

Privacy is a myth and your youthful indiscretions may well come back to haunt you. You are Born Digital. You are essentially cataloguing your own life on Facebook, Twitter, tumblr or wherever you lurk online.

The mooning arse, the bared breasts, the Nazi salute that seemed oh so funny at the time could scupper a job application or a romance at some point in the future. So, be careful to curate your digital footprint. Prune. Delete. And remember that some things are best left unpublished. Discretion is a virtue.

To those of you who have aced your GCSEs. Well done. You’ve cleared this hurdle, prepare for the next one. And to those who hoped to do better. Well done too. Get ready for the next hurdle as well.

The thing is, more than ever before, the world is changing faster than the speed of light. Which is a useful example. Neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light and we didn’t know that a month or two ago.

There’s no time, or need, to be complacent, cocky, downhearted or despairing. Especially with the world in meltdown as it is, none of us can have any idea of what’s around the corner. What was true this morning, is false this afternoon.

So just be ready. That golden opportunity, chance meeting or life changing moment will come and find you. Just be ready to notice it and grasp it when it does. A willingness to embrace the uncertain future is far more valuable than an A* GCSE.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top