Fast Track: Breaking into an exciting career in IT

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IN FEBRUARY 1979 Tony Coombes and his skis parted company on the slopes of Sauz d'Oulx in Italy. He broke his leg and was taken to the local hospital. Twelve hours later, the next bed was taken by another Brit, Paul Ingram, with another broken leg.

Mr Coombes, a computer "teccy'' working as a regional support manager for Burroughs Machines in Birmingham, knew he had to get into sales to progress. Mr Ingram happened to be the boss of a smallish IBM software house. On the strength of that hospital conversation, Mr Coombes left Burroughs five months later and became one of the early members of the team at Systems Resources (Midlands) Ltd.

Fifteen years later, Systems Resources was taken over by CRT and became Software Personnel. By that time the company had a turnover of pounds 23.5 million and Mr Coombes was its professional services director, with shares in the business. Four years on, he has just left the renamed organisation for good and is working from his home, a converted mill on the edge of a gorgeous Cotswolds' village.

After an amicable separation from Software Personnel (now called Spring, and with a turnover of some pounds 400m), he is halfway through a 12-month exclusion agreement which prevents him working in similar businesses. But at the age of 51, Mr Coombes has no intention of staying outside the IT sphere for long.

"I have enjoyed every minute of being in IT - it's an exciting career,'' he says. "It's a young industry with lots of young people, and it's fun to be part of a young team. There is still quite an ethic of work hard and play hard. In most companies, the IT department is considered a go- ahead department with lots of fun as well as high-pressure work.''

Mr Coombes, who had A-levels in maths, applied maths and physics, took a career diversion into computers because of a sports car: working as an export clerk with the Royal Worcester Porcelain Company, he noticed that it was the members of the computer department who stepped out of all the desirable vehicles in the car park. He asked the export sales manager why this was. "They're paid more, Tony,'' the boss replied.

Although the company had only one computer, it was already being extensively used. Mr Coombes started as an operator, tapping in details of china sold and profits made, then became a programmer in RPG and Basic Assembler. "I just loved it. Programming then was fantastic fun. There were very few restrictions on you and how you did your job and I could go in at night and have the computer to myself. If your programme didn't work you could change the code on the computer itself.''

Mr Coombes's computer manager, Adrian Wardner, besides giving Mr Coombes the freedom to learn, also sent him on external systems analyst courses. This grounding enabled him to move to Burroughs Machines. Ten years later, he was deciding whether to take a short-term demotion to gain sales experience when he broke his leg and met Mr Ingram.

Although entry levels have changed since Mr Coombes chose IT - the vast majority of IT entrants now are graduates - the workplace is a different place, and skills and technology advance at a frightening pace, he says IT remains a challenging and exciting career. The ground rules for success are the same: be prepared to work hard, and to learn from everyone with knowledge to offer.

"I used to work extremely hard. When I was modifying a company operating system I'd work until 10pm every night for three months. We did this to gain sales and win sales. It's still a great career to be in. There is still a lot of freedom, even though it's more constrained than it used to be, and from a computer department, you can go in so many directions, from user departments to management. A computer science degree enables you to work anywhere, because your first expertise is in IT rather than that business.

"All though my teens I wanted to be a pilot but failed the officers' air selection tests because I was colour blind. I was actually talking to an RAF pilot recently and told him the story but when I look back, I'm glad I couldn't be a pilot. They come to the end of their career at about 38 whereas in IT, you're just coming into your own.''

tony Coombes - cv

Born 1949, educated Worcester Grammar School, A-levels in pure maths, applied maths and physics.

First job: Lloyds Bank, Northfield, Birmingham. Moved to Royal Worcester Porcelain Company. Learned to programme (self-taught and external courses).

1969: joined Burroughs Machines as a junior analyst in Edgbaston, Birmingham

1979: broke his leg and found himself in an Italian hospital bed next to Paul Ingram, founder of Systems Resources.

1979-1998: starting in sales, became professional services director, having changed the culture of the company from 35 permanent consultants to 650 contract staff and a pounds 23.5 million turnover. Systems Resources was sold to CRT and became Software Personnel (changed this year to Spring). Coombes stayed on for four years under contract.

March 98: exclusion clause prevents work in IT for 12 months, but Coombes has every intention of rejoining the industry.