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Moving from a technical role to a non-technical role

Chrislilley

You're probably aware of this by now, but just in case it wasn't clear - most of us here, at Black Pepper, are techies. We live and breathe software and we are proud of that.

But that doesn't mean that we don't have other interests as well - quite the opposite, we’re curious about almost everything. Our collective list of interests is so broad that we’re bound to have something to talk about, be it cycling, film, theatre, Game of Thrones, triathlons, golf, motorbikes, building boats or playing didgeridoo.

That's why we're introducing a new section on our blog - Technically Anything. We're going to be posting all sorts of things we care about, because we'd like you to see who we are, not just what we do at the office. Our first valiant author in the Technically Anything section is Chris Lilley, our Sales & Marketing Director. He told us all about how he transitioned into his current role. Read on:

It's been an interesting couple of years.

I have been in commercial software engineering for over thirty years, just over fourteen of them with Black Pepper. I've enjoyed solving all kinds of problems, from writing a device driver for a UPS to an automotive manufacturer's vehicle model configurator to financial systems that process hundreds of millions of pounds worth of transactions a year.

My favourite activities as a child were construction kits and things like Meccano and Lego: fixing simple bits together to make a complex, mechanically satisfying whole. I've always enjoyed learning languages; they were some of my favourite subjects at school, learning how to translate from one to another. So a technical career seemed like a natural direction to take, and software engineering is a great marriage of two of my favourite things: translating an abstract idea into a functioning component using language, and wrangling those components into a complete system like virtual Meccano.

Black Pepper's development as a company is similar to that of many small businesses. It was started by a small number of technical people who believed they could do a better job than their existing employer allowed. The company has grown organically in the last 16 years, from a two-man consultancy to a 40-person, multi-million pound software development company.

In the early stages, the amount of time spent running a business was minimal, and most of the focus was on the technical tasks we were so good at. As the company developed, the balance has shifted steadily, and structure and process have been introduced when needed to keep things running smoothly. That's meant an inevitable change in the roles of the senior members of the company over time too. I spent a few years combining technical leadership roles with management: line management and mentoring as well as HR strategy and company direction. In software development, however, technologies, tools and techniques move incredibly quickly and the demands of running a business mean it takes considerable effort to keep up. I began to find it virtually impossible to devote the necessary time to all my various roles.

The sense that I wasn't doing my best in any area made me start to question the practicality of the situation. In a classic mid-life crisis (well, crisis is a rather dramatic word for it) I began to wonder whether I was even still interested in software engineering.

As the number of employees whose livelihoods depended on Black Pepper increased it became obvious we needed to build the capacity to provide a sustainable revenue stream: a sales and marketing team, and someone with board level responsibility to run it. An opportunity seemed to be presenting itself.

I'm sure many of my friends and family will confirm that a fair bit of agonising went on, but in the end, the realisation that I am fundamentally more interested in people than technology (my previous responsibility for HR should perhaps have given some indication) and a desire for a new challenge got the better of me, and I stepped out of my comfort zone (well out of my comfort zone!) into the realm of sales and marketing. But one thing the agonising had given me was the time to realise that I was keen to learn something new; I had an appetite for discovering new things, including things about myself.

The eighteen months since that point have been something of a blur, but my view is at least beginning to clear. In that eighteen months we have transformed Black Pepper's sales and marketing operation into a team of five people, on course to exceed our sales target for the year.

I started with little idea of what I was really aiming for, so I used one of my long-time guiding principles: always work with people smarter than you. I was introduced to a sales expert, and used his knowledge and experience to help me interview and employ great sales people.

I also enlisted his help as a coach, to help me understand where I should focus my thinking.

Between us, we have learned about what Black Pepper does best, where we need to learn, and what to improve upon. Last financial year we set ourselves extremely challenging revenue and customer acquisition targets, given that we were a fledgling team working from a standing start. Thanks to some great work both individually and as a team, it looks likely we will meet them: a phenomenal achievement in my view.

I have learned a great deal about many things. I have learned the value of good training and coaching. I have picked up some leadership skills that I hadn’t needed when there were ten of us, but which are essential when running a company of 40 people. I have learned that sales and marketing people are different from software engineers. I have confirmed that I am genuinely fascinated by people.

A software engineering career taught me the value of a methodical approach and logical thinking, combined with experimentation. Experimentation is key in today’s agile world: things move quickly and the right approach today may not work next week. Back it up with measurement to underpin your decisions and you can pivot and tune processes as you need to. It’s a bit like software optimisation: you can’t improve things without knowing where the problems are, so measure first, tune later. I like to think I’ve been able to apply the same principles in my new role: doing something is better than doing nothing; make small adjustments because it makes failure and change cheaper.

I arrived at the end of last year with far more confidence than I would have anticipated, and more excitement about taking on the challenge of growing the company over the coming years.

The main lesson I take away from this is that it doesn't really matter what you're doing as long as you approach it with the right attitude. It is important to be curious, and accept you're always going to be learning, so you might as well enjoy it. I'm more comfortable in my own management style, which is to be humble, assume that the people doing the work are the experts. Then my job is simply to give them a good sense of direction and focus on removing any obstacles that stop them doing their job.