Advice I give when people ask about my career

Reflections on working in and around tech and policy, and tips for people seeking roles similar to the sorts of jobs I've done.

06 October 2023


I’ve done lots of different jobs in my career to date, mostly in or around tech and policy. Over the years many people have been generous supporting me in my journey, and I try to pay this forward when others get in touch to seek my advice.

This post recaps the top things I get asked about and what I typically say.

I hope writing this down will be helpful to others. Please remember it is just my take based on my own experience – readers are free to discount or disagree with my opinions on different topics as they see fit!

Table of contents

Working at a Big Three consultancy

Pros: I learned foundational skills (problem solving, communication, facilitation, leadership) that have made me significantly more effective in every single job I’ve done since. I got to tackle tough – and therefore interesting – client engagements in a range of sectors. I worked in probably the highest-performing teams I’ve ever been a part of. I learned how to give and receive meaningful feedback.

Cons: Of all the jobs I’ve done, this required the most sacrifices in terms of long hours and neglected friendships. Although the client engagements I did were all extremely interesting challenges, I didn’t find enough meaning in them to sustain me.

TL;DR = Not for me long term, but I’m 100% glad I did it.

Working at a small(er) organisation

You may miss things that are typical at larger organisations e.g. training programmes, structured performance processes, office amenities, etc. You may also find lots of things get done ad-hoc (or even chaotically) and this can be challenging.

On the other hand, you will most likely have a lot more autonomy. And if you are prepared to lean in and are smart about what you choose to take on, you can effect change far faster than if you were operating in a large bureaucracy.

Reflections on switching sectors

I generally think the world would be a better place if more people moved between sectors more often. Political parties, governments and regulators would all do better at tech policy if more people in them had direct experience of working in the industry at some point in their careers. And tech companies need people who have direct experience of the reality of getting things done in government / politics.

I’ve learned a lot from working with different people and solving different problems in government, in consulting, in think tanks and nonprofits, and in the tech sector. I draw on these varied experiences regularly, and I think it makes me better at seeing where other people are coming from.

Do be aware of the time and energy required to ramp up in new roles / organisations.

It’s OK to try something and discover it’s not for you, but you should give things a proper go (and put in the effort to leave on good terms if it doesn’t work out).

Career change into policy

If you’re seeking to move into policy work from a non-policy background, there are practical things you can do to gain / demonstrate relevant experience:

  • Read some reports on topics you’re interested in, have an opinion on them and reach out to the authors to ask a question or give them some feedback. Don’t be shy – the worst that can happen is they don’t write back.
  • Go along to some policy events run by think tanks, NGOs etc. This will help you build your network and give you things to talk about. Investing your personal time is a strong signal of genuine interest in a topic.
  • Research an issue you think is important, write up your analysis and publish it online. There’s no permission required, and taking the initiative like this is a concrete way to demonstrate your skills. It’s still remarkable to me how few people actually do this.

Read my notes on how to get policy work done.

Value of policy work in tech companies

An effective policy debate requires participants on all sides to be properly informed. It’s entirely right and desirable for companies to be able to explain their perspective on matters of public interest, and to make the case for their preferred outcomes.

Remember there are two sides to policy work in the private sector: explaining the company to policymakers, and explaining the policy environment to the company.

In the end, if you want to have a chance at making a big positive impact on the world then you need to be close to power. Tech companies in particular operate at a scale that make outsize impact possible, and are therefore good places to go if this is what motivates you.

Getting on the radar

Leverage LinkedIn to identify relevant people to speak with at organisations you’re interested in.

Leverage your network for introductions.

Find a recruitment consultant who knows about the sector / companies you’re interested in. They will be able to help you with applications and interviews, and may also have access to roles before they are advertised.

Writing a good CV

Write in the first person.

Highlight actions taken and results / impact achieved, not lists of responsibilities.

Don’t waste space on bland straplines or personal statements.

Use spell check! There are zero excuses for typos.

Fit it on one side of paper (with sensible font size and margins).

Writing a good cover letter

The same basic principles apply: concise, relevant, no typos (seriously, no typos).

Use the pyramid principle.

Interview tips

Talk about what excites you about the job you’ve applied for, not about what’s missing from the job you’re doing now.

When giving examples to demonstrate suitability, stay focused on actions and impact (and remember to say “I” not “we”).

Be concise. Don’t waste time on unnecessary exposition – this is time the interviewer could be learning about you instead.

Have a question to ask the interviewer that will give you signal about the role and organisation. Some of the best questions I’ve been asked by interviewees:

  • What has surprised you about working here?
  • What have you learned about yourself working here?
  • What advice would you give someone starting here?

Deciding which role to pursue

Be on the lookout for people you would be excited to work with. This should be your top consideration: policy work is a team sport, and you’ll do your best work with the right colleagues.

Optimise for now. In my opinion the future is too unpredictable to be thinking multiple steps ahead. If you commit fully to the task at hand you’ll do it well and stand out when it’s time for your next role. Conversely if you’re permanently distracted by what might come next, you’ll never excel in the present.

Be honest with yourself / trust your heart. In the end you are the only one who truly knows what is important for you to be happy in a job. Do something because it’s right for you, not because you’re trying to please (or impress) someone else.

Remote work

I’ve been doing some version of remote work in different roles for nearly a decade, living in Edinburgh and managing teams in different cities around the globe.

I’ve been fortunate to do jobs that involve semi-regular travel to London, which is where I grew up and where my family and many of my friends still live. This has made it possible for me to stay connected to lots of the people that matter to me.

I estimate I travel for work 3-4 days a fortnight on average, but it varies depending on what’s going on. I’m lucky that our family circumstances and support network make it possible to accommodate an unpredictable schedule.

I think the key to effective collaboration when working remote is being intentional about it. Some things require people to be in the same room at the same time, others can be done with hybrid or online meetings, and lots of things are actually better progressed asynchronously. It’s really important to be able to recognise which is which!

In terms of practicalities, I have a dedicated space at home with proper monitors and professional kit for video calls, and run a regular cadence of structured meetings, 1:1s and other interactions to stay close and available to my teams.

It’s really important to get in-person time with colleagues when you can, and when I am in the office I prioritise this aggressively.

US vs UK business culture

I’m mindful the US companies I have worked for are not necessarily representative of American business culture, so YMMV here. That said:

  1. Get used to talking about your feelings. When someone asks how you’re feeling about a situation or outcome, they are asking you a real question and deserve a real answer (i.e. don’t say “not bad” and think you’re done!).
  2. Get used to giving and receiving a lot of feedback. Direct, constructive feedback is a gift and the fastest way to improve. Giving and receiving feedback is a learnable skill; the more you do it the better you’ll be at it.
  3. Americans don’t understand the word fortnight.
01 Mar 2024 →

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