11 Blue-collar lessons for agency life

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Before working in agency, I held down a number of blue-collar roles:

  • Lab technician
  • Labouring
  • Manning a production line
  • Plant process operator
  • DJ’ing and running parties (which was more of a love and a vocation rather than a job)

These roles gave me a foundation to build my agency life on:

  • The value of connections: Here’s how a typical job interview went in the petrochemical sector. I see that you’ve worked at X Company do you know so-and-so? I worked with them on X project at a previous company, when can you start? You learn about the power of connections pretty fast. I heard of similar experiences amongst friends who were brickies and steel erectors – once you are ‘in the life’ you are half-way there
  • Read the manual: Back when I worked in labs we often may get budget to buy kit like computers or testing rigs like a tensometer, they never put a budget in for training or fixing anything if it went wrong. That meant I had to spend a lot of time reading through spiral bound manuals usually covered in chocolate brown PVC. Google makes this process a lot easier, but before you shout out, or throw your hands up in the air; read the proverbial manual
  • Build on other people’s work: One of the last jobs I had before going to college was testing optical fibre. I pulled apart other people’s Lotus 1-2-3 macros to automate the recording of data from test equipment. This allowed me to to do interesting stuff like how to touch-type. Reading the manual didn’t help that much, whereas building on the wisdom of others did
  • Touch-typing: probably the smartest single act I ever did was learning how to touch-type on a terminal hooked up to a DEC VAX 9000 mini-computer. It helped me so much during the years – from being able to turn out essays at college, doing call-centre work to pay the bills when things got lean to agency work and even this blog. Not being able to touch type is like not being able to hold a pen. Whilst the future may bring us a Minority Report-style interface for computers rather than a keyboard, I am sure that it will still have a QWERTY layout for English speakers
  • Finding your way around a computer: I wouldn’t say that I am a computer expert but I had to learn my way around a computer. Working in an industrial environment I got exposed to everything from Windows 1.0, terminals attached to minicomputers or mainframes, SGI workstations and (classic) Macs. The key thing is note down everything of importance, draw flow diagrams or whatever helps you think it through and don’t be afraid. I am not a great fan of computer driving licences as they teach a set of skills rather than a way of problem solving
  • Occam’s razor: often the simplest, most elegant explanation is the truth. I picked this up the hard way troubleshooting experiments that went wrong. There is nothing like a methodical approach to finding that simple elegant explanation
  • Thinking ahead:  working in manufacturing meant that you always had to think about where your job was going. I used to work at two companies that were thriving at the time: Spectrum Adhesive Coaters used to make the labels that go in the middle of Imperial Leather soap tablets and holographic labels for Visa credit cards; Corning Optical Fibres used to provide optical fibre to BT and parts of BAe Systems for everything from telecoms and computer networks to fly-by-wire missiles. Neither exist anymore, what is more the sites where they stood show no signs of their existence. Corning Optical Fibres is now a patch of grassland, which sits either side of a security fence for a Toyota engine plant, Spectrum Adhesive Coaters is a grassy knoll in the middle of a retail park next to an ASDA supermarket. These weren’t Victorian-era smoke stack businesses, Corning Optical Fibres was bleeding edge technology with a clean room environment which would have been familiar to workers at Intel or AMD. This sort of change forces you to constantly think what’s next, it was the reason why I eventually went back to college and the reason why I explored digital early on
  • Clean as you go: working in industry on the shop-floor you are encouraged to ‘clean as you go’. Too much clutter and mess can lead to industrial accidents due to people slipping on a spillage or having something fall on your foot. I have a friend who has an 18-inch scar down his arm where a hedge trimmer that was being serviced by a colleague fell off the bench whilst he was bent down lifting an item out of his tool box. My desk isn’t clean but as tasks get done the paper and clutter generally gets binned
  • Plan the work, and work the plan: working in an oil refinery or a production line means that you need to have a clear understanding of what you want to do. Otherwise you could end up injured, dead and possibly take the neighbourhood with you. In agency life, its a bit less serious with over-servicing and clients squeezing agencies
  • Make mistakes: I started off working in a laboratory, there was a chief chemist called Brian with a set of filing cabinets. Brian has an encyclopaedic memory of two decades worth of experiments that had gone wrong and records in the filing cabinets to back his recollections up. The thing that the scientific method gives you is a perspective on mistakes. So long as you learn from them they aren’t bad in the long run
  • Cover your ass: the untold story about the rise of total quality management (TQM) and BS5750 | ISO9000 in the late 1980s and 90s was as much about realpolitik as is was about improving business processes. I am not saying that these standards were a bad thing, but that they appealed to the political creature in companies who could kill you with memos to prove that they were right. However it is good practice in an agency environment because you instinctively can take to job bag systems and traceability required for approvals processes and accurate billing