This was the first of the proper sessions in the employability workshop series. I can pontificate about careers; the Careers service can inform about careers; but there's nothing quite like having people who actually have careers talk about their careers, or ventures, or just relate their experience of the Outside World.
It was a pleasure to welcome James Ohene-Djan back, to talk about the history of and latest news from Winkball. I think I could take or leave the Winkball story itself, though several students commented to me afterwards that they were particularly glad that they got to hear a story of failure – or maybe success at the wrong thing? After all, Winkball did scale; it got big, at least for the right metric – it just never got to the point where investors believed that it would be big enough to justify funding that growth.
James did offer some important insights from his experience of growing Winkball, which might have been lost on the students: one point was on finding out when and how to pass on things for someone else (or some other company) to do; another was the mistake of not taking people's names for the later “Google yourself” automatic marketing factor. But I think there were some really inspiring messages, too: firstly, the fact that they're pivoting to a business-to-business product with a subscription model, providing a targetted video advertising and marketing platform; not that I am particularly fascinated by video advertising, but the real drive to build something that works is something to behold.
But secondly, and this was something that I really didn't know
beforehand: when asked by a student what he really thought Winkball
had achieved, James revealed that the technology, which had originally
been motivated to provide a platform for the deaf and hard-of-hearing,
did survive in that realm: he pointed to
viewtalk.org, a Winkball analogue
tailored for the deaf, and the
commercial arm aiming to be a business
producing marketing materials. Good luck to them.
The second presentation of the session, given by Sion Elias and Ed Worthy of IG, was perhaps a more conventional undergraduate career presentation. The serendipitous advertising of IG's graduate scheme, with a particular focus on front-end developer skills, gave me the opportunity to invite them over – which neatly ticked the “larger employer” and “financial services” boxes. Sion's career trajectory was interesting, and superposing his timeline on a graph showing the FTSE 100 share index between 1997 and the present couldn't help but be entertaining.
Among Sion's points was that not all graduate training schemes are the same: I think he was at pains to contrast IG with more hidebound competitors for talent, in particular the merchant banks, where the divison of work areas into front-/middle-/back-office silos is very established. The emphasis in the presentation on development methodology (agile, XP and pair-programming) was interesting; are the details of the corporate development methodology still so distinctive that they differentiate in the competition for talent? I can believe, as Sion said, that they save at least some money by using these processes to have fewer bugs in production (and hence less downtime, lower churn, and so on); as a signal in a graduate recruitment pitch, though, I'm less convinced. But maybe I'm underestimating student discrimination of development practices?
I was a little surprised at the relative lack of questions from the students; maybe the two-hour session is a little intense? There were some good ones, and the rump of students who stayed at the end to discuss pivoting and lean startup methodology had a good conversation, but to me it felt a bit like a missed opportunity – or maybe the financial services industry still has too many negative associations for the students among the hotbed of idealism that is Goldsmiths?
The two presentations, along with their respective Q&A sessions, ran exactly to time: that was good, but that meant that I didn't really have any time to wrap up or go more deeply into some of the issues raised – unlike last year, where I had an explicit recap session built-in after lunch. Given the chance, what I might have pointed out was that both talks, from substantially different perspectives, really highlighted how little of a viable business, even a viable technology business, was the technology itself; yes, it's important that the technology is there, and works, and is cutting-edge, but that alone does not a viable business make. The other theme in common between the talks was the constant need for learning, about technology, about business and about everything else.