Phil has come a long way from the inexperienced engineering postgraduate who fell into a job in an advertising agency. Honing his technical know how and business acumen led to a Sainsbury Management Fellowship MBA scholarship and he’s now, at 33, a senior managing consultant at IBM.
I graduated in environmental engineering from the University of Nottingham in 2000 and then went overseas to gain some work experience. I spent six months in South Africa in a hotel accounts department and six months in South Korea teaching English to Korean kids – granted, not particularly advanced jobs, but it was more about working in and learning about different cultures.
Left staring at the job market
In 2002 I was due to start work with Arthur Andersen LLP - one of the ‘big five’ US accounting firms, but unfortunately that year the company went down in the wake of the Enron scandal, which left me staring at the job market having just missed the graduate intake. I ended up spending a year in an advertising agency, which, while not directly related to my engineering degree or career aspirations, was in hindsight a really rewarding time. I picked up skills in marketing and communications - very different from the engineering world, but pretty valuable experience.
In 2003 I embarked on the Sigma Leadership Programme run by BAE Systems. This is a fast-tracked program that requires its members to commit to five years of multiple placements within the organisation - the idea being to develop one’s skills as both an engineer and a business leader. I worked all over the business including at Airbus – a subsidiary of BAE at the time.
Overseas opportunities with BAE Systems
I also spent some time in New York working in general systems engineering management specifically around electric vehicles on behalf of Transport for London (TFL). This was a very interesting project as the BAE hybrid electric system is a fairly niche part of the organisation – given it’s mainly a defence company. Manhattan has had hybrid electric system buses for over a decade and I was responsible for learning the technology in the States and then integrating into the London buses – which also included working on commercial applications and managing the relationship with TFL.
By 2009, in addition to running BAE programmes and a £4 million research project for the Technology Strategy Board, I’d also done a part-time master’s in systems engineering management at UCL and become a Chartered Engineer (CEng) with the IET. It was at this point that I decided I quite fancied concentrating a bit more on the business side of life.
Finding out about the Sainsbury Management Fellowship
I was referred to the Sainsbury Management Fellowship (SMF) through a friend and was taken with its philosophy, which is very similar to mine, that the combination of an engineering/technology background with business skills is a very useful toolkit.
BAE offered to sponsor me through an executive MBA – but the SMF scholarship meant that I could go it alone on a full-time basis, immerse myself and properly consider my next career move – rather than just going back to work for a sponsor company. Also financially I don’t think I could have afforded to take two years out of the workplace – with no pay and covering the MBA fees.
An MBA in Spain…and America
With the help of the SMF scholarship I left BAE and went off to do an MBA in finance, technology and sales at the University of Navarra in Spain. I’d actually entered an international exchange programme so my two-year MBA was split between Spain and the Columbia Business School in New York – which is where I discovered the other huge advantage of the Sainsbury Management Fellowship – its network.
About midway through my MBA in September 2010 I was heading off to New York to spend that term at Columbia so I asked the SMF if there were any members in New York that I could connect with. Although I had started to think about looking for another job, I was really looking to connect with SMF people from a common interest point of view.
The SMF network lead to an amazing new career opportunity
I was put in touch with Evaristus Mainsah, an SMF member who’d done his MBA in finance, economics and management at Columbia - and happens to be assistant treasurer at IBM. He told me about an IBM programme that every year takes six or seven MBA graduates experienced in multinationals on fast-track global placements around the company - and that’s what I’m a year into now.
The IBM fast-track programme
IBM decided to locate me in London for my first placement, which to date has been working on electric vehicles, smart grids and smart metering in the UK market. My second placement, which begins in January, will be based in Malaysia where I will be working on ‘smarter planet deals’ – how IBM integrates all its different technologies under one banner.
Rather than saying this is all the kit we’ve got and this is what we can sell, I can sit with a customer, see what they need, then look across the whole breadth of IBM to see how we can solve their problems bringing all the IBM solutions to the table. It’s a really interesting place to be because you’re not stuck in one silo.
I’ve come into IBM with fresh ideas that came from doing the MBA and also from talking to now quite a good SMF network. There’s a big entrepreneurial vibe within SMF – and importantly it’s recognised that you don’t have to restrict entrepreneurship to just start-up business. You can also apply it to big organisations. Hence alongside my day job I’ve been looking at a new proposition to see how IBM’s technology and big data can support international economic development of growing markets.
My private project has now grown into something much bigger
For example 90 per cent of Indian people have a mobile phone but only 50 per cent have a bank account. It’s a massive opportunity to start engaging with rural India to discover how technology and communications and the huge amounts of data that they generate can help governments and aid organisations accelerate balanced and sustainable economic development – so it’s not just good for the wealthy few.
Up until recently it was my private little project, looking at what we’ve got within the IBM portfolio that can help in this area and engaging with appropriately experienced people within the company. But now it’s started get some attention to the extent that we’ve just convened The Smarter Impact Conference in London. I now have an even bigger opportunity before me and the Sainsbury Management Fellowship was instrumental in that.