I’ve created my last three jobs. I work at the Department for Transport in the UK (I’ll call it the Department from here on). Like any large government organisation, it can be bureaucratic. Creating your own job is not the norm. Here’s what I did and why it worked.
It’s 2013. I’ve been doing the same job for a few years, and I’m ready for a change. Normally this would mean heading to the Civil Service Jobs site and trawling through jobs designed by someone else. Instead, I found the Department’s organisation chart. I’d worked in most areas, but there was one I knew nothing about: rail. I figured it would be fun to learn something completely new. I only knew one person in the rail section of the org chart. He was a director who I had always respected. I sent him an email:
I’m starting to look for a new job. You’ve got a great reputation, and I’ve always thought it would be great to work for you [a little flattery goes a long way!]. Do you have any jobs available?
We went for a coffee. He said he had might have something for me in a few months, as one of his staff was looking for another job. I said thanks and thought I’d need to start looking again.
The following week, there was a Cabinet reshuffle (where government ministers are moved or changed). The Department got one more minister than usual. This person who might have been moving in a few months, ended up moving the same day to run this minister’s private office. I got back in touch and the job was mine.
In the first few months, I didn’t have a defined role. I was used as a problem solver. It meant I learnt fast and got to work on really interesting problems. After a while, my director told me it was time to settle in a defined role. I got to pick who I wanted to work with and what I wanted to work on. Together my new boss and I created a whole new team out of nothing, and I set to work on my new job: rolling out free Wi-Fi and fixing the phone signal across the British rail network.
In the first year, I started to see new opportunities.
People kept telling me that we couldn’t make lots of data in the rail industry openly available. Why? It bugged me. So I made a pitch to my boss. Let’s hire someone to look into this.
I started attending hackathons with dozens of talented people creating elegant solutions to problems on the railway. Shouldn’t we be doing more to support this? Again, I went to my boss. Can we make this core part of my role?
At the same time, I was being asked to take on a massive new project looking at how to make the most of the telecoms network on the railway to raise revenue and fix rural broadband. Sounds great, but that’s a lot of work. If we were going to do this, I needed some support.
And if I took on all of this, that’s a much tougher job. So I worked up the courage to ask for a promotion to lead this expanded team.
It worked. I was put on temporary promotion to this new role I had designed. In the Civil Service, you need to earn a promotion in an open and fair competition. So, several months later I had an interview up against other candidates. I could speak with knowledge and passion because I knew the job inside out. Once again I got a job I’d created myself.
Throughout this time I had seen how the startup world could achieve great things in the rail industry. I’d taken part in some informal hackathons run by staff in the Department. This way of working was fun, creative and effective. Why didn’t we do more of it? I started to formulate an idea of a team of software developers and entrepreneurs in something I called the DfT Lab. We would be like a startup inside the Department, with freedom to innovate.
I knew this was a step up from jobs I’d designed in the past. I needed a whole team from day one, and I needed to create it from nothing. One day I clocked off a bit early, headed to the pub, and started writing a business case. I came up with as many benefits as I could think of and ended with a four-page document setting out my vision. I then sent it to everyone I knew who might have any power or influence to make it happen.
Before too long I discovered that the Department was setting up a new Digital Service, and I should speak the person leading it. I pitched my idea to him. He was interested, but I got the impression that I was too late, and there wasn’t a place for my idea either inside or out of this newly designed team. Then, three weeks later, out the blue, I got a call; “We like the idea. Do you want to come set up the Lab with us?” I couldn’t believe it! I’m now setting up the DfT Lab, and this guy is my new boss.
So what have I learnt, creating all these jobs?
The most important factor in whether people say yes, is whether they can trust you.
One person who gave me a job told me that he carried in his head a list of people he thought were great. Whenever he had a new job he’d start approaching people on that list. Though I’d never worked with him directly, I’d made it onto the list a few years earlier off the basis of a few interactions here and there.
When I pitched the DfT Lab, it turned out my old mentor was the boss of the person I was pitching to. Without me knowing anything about it, my mentor vouched for me, and the trust that created was–I think–the deciding factor.
Assume anyone might be in a position to help you one day. Always go out of your way to help others, especially if they don’t know you well.
What’s the reason most people have never created their own job? They never asked. In every case, I didn’t think what I was doing would work. But I tried anyway.
If you are worried about asking, write out a list of what you think are the worst things that could happen. Chances are there’s not much. Even if it doesn’t work out, people will respect you for having ideas and ambition.
I find embarrassment is often what I’m most worried about. What if they think I’m an idiot or that it’s not my place to ask for such things. If you are struggling with this, I suggest buying The Four Hour Work Week and trying the confidence building exercises at the end of each chapter. The first of these exercises is to hold people’s gazes until they look away for a day. It desensitises you to uncomfortable situations.
I’ve always been lucky here. When I’ve proposed a new job, the first answer has always been no (or my emails are ignored). I’ve often given up there, but something changes and makes me ask again.
When I pitched the DfT Lab, I sent my business case to the Permanent Secretary (the equivalent of a CEO in the Civil Service). I didn’t hear from him for weeks. One evening I saw him going into the changing rooms as he’s a cyclist. I followed and pretended I was getting something out of my locker (creepy I know…). I spent an unrealistic amount of time fiddling around with the toiletries in the bottom of my locker, until he said “oh, hi Gavin! I’ve got your proposal, haven’t I? I must take a look at that”. That led to him lending vital support to the idea. Quiet–albeit a little creepy–persistence paid off.
I recently hired someone who’d said in the interview that it was his dream job. That’s always great to hear as an interviewer. But don’t wait for your dream job to come around. Get out there and create it.