My first career was in computing – but I never planned to work in technology.
At school, I had a wide range of interests and achieved Highers in Maths, Chemistry, English, German, Geography, History and Modern Studies. While I went through phases of liking particular subjects, my favourite subject throughout secondary school was English. A career in computing was nowhere on my radar – there weren’t even any computers in schools at the time!
When I was in my final year at school, I bowed to pressure from teachers to apply for university. At the time I was interested in African politics, prompted by the brutal murder of Steve Biko by the apartheid regime in South Africa, so I thought: "If I’m going to be forced to go to university, I’ll study something I’m really interested in and go as far away from home as possible!”
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Big mistake! I went to the University of Sussex to study African and Asian studies but, as I had neither the confidence nor the desire to survive at university and missed home, my stay at Brighton was a short one.
I returned to Scotland and spent the next few years in and out of jobs at a time of economic recession and high youth unemployment. In the mid-1980s, aged 25, I went back to full-time study to do a BSc computer information systems at Glasgow College of Technology.
My husband and I had just had our first child, taken out our first mortgage – just as interest rates began to soar – and we needed to increase our family income. So, my motivations for choosing a computing degree were vocational and financial. It was a growing industry sector and I knew I was likely to get a good job with decent money when I graduated.
And I did.
I started my career in manufacturing at Motorola Semiconductors where I did some programming, supported the computer network and trained staff on packages like Harvard Graphics (Microsoft Office hadn’t yet appeared on the scene!). I wasn’t the best programmer, but my boss described me as a "great de-bugger" (at least I think that’s what he said) because I could spot a misplaced punctuation mark a mile away. My forensic approach to grammar and punctuation served me well here and in my future career.
Next, I worked at AVEX Electronics where I was responsible for introducing and installing a computer network across three sites. This is where I really discovered the power of digital networks, and the potential they opened up for individuals within and outwith an organisation to share information and collaborate on projects.
Designing and delivering training courses to support employees through a major systems change sparked an interest in learning, so I applied for a lecturing post at the University of Paisley. Here, as well as teaching about computer networks, I became interested in learning with networked technology and I was an early pioneer of developing online courses.
I took this interest forward when I became director of learning at the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, and assistant chief executive at Learning and Teaching Scotland, where I led departments responsible for educational software development and technology training courses for schools, colleges and universities.
In 2000, I organised one of the first large-scale educational conferences to be broadcast live online across the world (Fusion2000, which ultimately evolved into the Scottish Learning Festival), and managed a project team responsible for implementing the National Grid for Learning (the precursor to Glow) to enable schools across Scotland to access educational resources on the internet.
I became interested in the policy underpinning education and lifelong learning in Scotland, and developed this further when I joined the Scottish Government in 2003. In my 10 years in government, most of the roles I had related to skills and employment rather than technology, although I was responsible for e-learning policy for a couple of years.
I took up a role as vice-principal at Ayrshire College in 2013, where I had a wide range of responsibilities including our management information systems and data analytics. So, although I was involved at a different level than when I set out over 30 years ago, I’d kind of come full circle in my career.
No wrong path
Two years ago this week I became principal of West Lothian College. The skills and experience I have acquired in my long and varied career are being put to good use in this role, and I am very excited about the possibilities for the college in the years ahead.
When I left school I had no idea what career I wanted. I made a few choices early on that led me down a path I didn’t want to follow. So I changed direction!
Throughout my career, I’ve chosen a different career path when it felt right for me – so far I’ve had seven major career changes and worked for 11 different employers!
Sometimes it wasn’t obvious – even to me – what the connection between one career and another was. People close to me often thought I was making risky decisions and advised me against them. But I always did what felt right for me and, although there were some strange turns along the way, none of the paths I chose led to a dead end.
When I look back over my career pathway, although my route has been long and winding, there was no wrong path. Every twist and turn, even the occasional dead-end, led to new insights into what drove me and those insights led me to my next destination.
If I went back to the future and keyed my current destination into a career sat-nav when I left school, I’m sure it wouldn’t have suggested the route I’ve travelled. My path was fuelled by my passion for what I was interested in at the time – and I wouldn’t change that for the world.
Jackie Galbraith is principal and chief executive of West Lothian College.