As an engineer, have you ever wondered what it would be like to completely change the path you’re on? The story of Adam McCurdie, UNSW engineering graduate and co-founder and co-CEO of startup success Humanitix, might help.
Eventually, almost everyone makes a big career change. Adam McCurdie, co-founder and co-CEO of Humanitix, has done it three or four times, depending on how you count them.
This interview with Adam comes ahead of the opening of the University of New South Wales’ Australian Graduate School of Engineering (AGSE), which aims to help engineers make all kinds of career adjustments, and is currently seeking input from the engineering community about what it wants to see from a graduate school. It’s apt timing, as his career story offers lessons for those considering shaking things up.
The main one? Go for it.
McCurdie’s first major turn came pretty much immediately. After attending UNSW and securing a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering and Bachelor of Science, he didn’t look for a job related to the specialty he’d just acquired.
“I did what many engineers do and didn’t become an engineer,” he says.
Upon graduating, he was surprised to find that many companies, particularly consulting firms, like to employ engineers on the basis that they’re highly capable problem solvers. Hired by Accenture, he was placed in its media communications and technology practice during a time when ‘Big Data’ was peaking as a technology and a trend.
But it was only a few years before McCurdie decided it was time to get out, marking his second major turn. Looking for more meaning, he returned to university to do a Masters in Agriculture and Environmental Economics.
“To be honest, I asked myself, ‘Do I want to keep solving problems to purely make more money or do I want to try to solve problems that solve problems’,” says McCurdie.
This crossroads is familiar to many. Sometimes after your first job, sometimes later, you realise that you’re not happy with the path you’re on. It’s not that you can’t do it, it’s that you can see where it leads and the destination feels hollow.
UNSW wants to be an option for engineers who reach this point.
A place that changes your career
The university is currently trying to improve the experiences of graduate engineering students, and is asking the engineering community to fill out a survey about what they would like from the AGSE. The answers will be used to design courses and tailor programs that are helpful to engineers who want to change specialty, learn leadership and other skills, or figure out how to start their own company.
It’s also hosting an October 10 webinar in partnership with EA about the changing nature of engineering careers (go here to register).
Kaveh Fanian, Security Client Executive at IBM, did his Masters in Electrical Engineering at UNSW and returned to the university’s Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) for an Executive Masters in Business Administration. As suggested by his job title and two degrees, like McCurdie, his career has undergone huge transformations.
For him, his MBA was a chance to learn skills that typically aren’t taught in engineering courses. It even allowed him to attend The University of Chicago Booth School of Business on exchange.
“Because I have gone through AGSM when I saw that there was going to be an AGSE that excited me,” says Fanian.
“What UNSW offers is the vast number of cohorts and alumni. Current and future students have access to a family of people from around the globe, from different fields. That’s where I’ve benefitted. Networking outside of my initial field of industrial automation.”
Both Fanian and McCurdie are proof that university courses are not the be all and end all when it comes to career outcomes. Because while McCurdie did find a new direction during his Masters, it wasn’t related to his study.
His next turn came because, through like-minded academics and lecturers, he discovered social enterprises: organisations that use scalable business processes and structures to tackle a social problem.
Teaming up with a friend, they founded Humanitix. The idea: transform ticketing into a force for good. Nobody particularly likes paying booking fees, so what if the billions of dollars in profits generated from them could be redirected into funding for education of disadvantaged students in Australia and the rest of the world?
Brilliant idea. The initial execution? Not so brilliant.
The company’s first minimal viable product was an existing, licensed platform from “some company in Europe”. It didn’t cost much and wasn’t worth much, but it did provide a proof of concept. People would use a ticketing company for no other reason than it’s ethical point of difference.
It also taught McCurdie a lesson he says applies to anyone changing their career. It doesn’t matter what your next move is, whether it’s retraining or starting a company, don’t let embarrassment or perfectionism paralyse you.
“So many things start off like Humanitix did,” he says. “They’re some clunky effort that when you look back on it years in the future you’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s how it started?’”
Humanitix’s second minimal viable product was better, but still not great. It was a self-service platform built using WordPress, a popular open-source content management system. It was more scalable, garnered positive press, and allowed the company to pitch itself to philanthropists and raise capital to put together a team and create a new platform from scratch.
Four years in, the new platform is as sophisticated as any solution on the market, and constantly improving. The company’s clients include UN Women, Atlassian, TedX, RedBull and Google.org.
“It’s only people who are unafraid to launch a basic and maybe even embarrassing platform that end up learning something, and refining it into something wildly successful,” says McCurdie. “If you try to create a masterpiece before you do anything, you’ll never make a thing.”
He says this is a mindset that particularly plagues engineers, who can feel that they will be judged harshly for whatever they produce. It’s part of why he felt UNSW was a great university. It cares about its engineering students.
Fanian also has some advice for engineers thinking of changing their careers.
“Growth and comfort do not coexist,” he says. “And always be open to learning. It has been the single most influential factor in my career.”
Careers are often our destiny and legacy, so the discussion of them can make even confident people second guess themselves. So McCurdie has a last piece of advice to engineers considering making a change – it’s his answer to what he would tell his younger self at UNSW if he could go back in time.
UNSW would really appreciate your time filling out this survey. The answers will help us to create graduate experiences that will help engineers of all stripes excel in their endeavours. The university is also partnering with Engineers Australia for a webinar this month ‘Thought Leaders Series: The Evolving Engineer’. Go here to register.