Career stories: Calum Dickson, Principal Consultant

January 7th, 2021 Written by Andrew Frost

The 26-year-old principal consultant talks about how his passion for music led to a career in tech, how he overcame his imposter syndrome, and his experience starting a new role during a global pandemic.

Data engineer, full-stack engineer, and tech lead are just some of the roles Calum Dickson held before joining Infinity Works in May 2020. With plenty of variety on his CV, it would be easy to think that he’s always known what his career path would look like, but that couldn’t be any further from the truth.

“When I was at school, and thinking about my future, I never had a plan that said I want to be in a particular role by a particular time,” he says. “I was classically trained on the piano in my youth and had equal passion for music and STEM subjects, so I decided to combine these interests with a music technology degree at university. I wouldn’t say I went into that course knowing I would end up starting a career in software engineering.”

It was during his time at the University of Edinburgh that he first learned to code, specialising in audio and signal processing. The course helped him realise that he could combine programming skills with the creativity he enjoyed through his music to forge a career in technology. But after graduating, Calum admits to experiencing imposter syndrome – self-doubt about whether he had the required skills needed for a career in the tech industry, given the niche nature of his experience.

He explains: “I think a lot of people are put off starting a career in tech because of self doubt. I didn’t graduate from university with a computer science degree, which a lot of people in IT have, so I questioned myself. The beauty of the tech sector, however, is you don’t need a certain degree to get into it – it’s much more inclusive than other sectors which are gate-kept by specific qualifications such as law or finance. Just look at the Infinity Works Academy; it offers amazing opportunities to people from a wide range of backgrounds to start a career in tech.”

After joining a tech graduate scheme with Sky, Edinburgh-born Calum benefited from various placements around the company, working in a variety of roles including engineering, data & business intelligence, and web development.

He says: “My time at Sky was great as it allowed me to work in different areas of a huge company and help plug the gaps in my technical repertoire. Understandably, in such a large organisation, there were inefficiencies so I used my time there as a sandpit to solve problems in a corporate setting. The role allowed me to go into different departments, almost as an outsider, investigate the business problem and then propose solutions – it helped develop my consultancy mindset.”

Meeting Chewbacca during his time at Sky

Whilst working at Sky, Calum stumbled upon an opportunity to work with a family friend on a business venture, building simulations to train new management teams in concepts like cash flow management and supply-chain risk. The business needed assistance translating their vision into software, which Calum provided on the evenings and weekends, with his employer’s blessing. 

“It was a great catalyst for my learning; during the day I grappled with technical and organisational issues at corporate scale, and then at night I was working on a startup,” he comments. “Successfully delivering this freelance work required an aggressive approach to self-learning. I used platforms such as Udemy and Pluralsight to learn Javascript, Typescript, Angular, C-sharp, and Azure. I shipped with these new technologies in my personal time and then reapplied what I learned in my role at Sky.” 

Overcoming imposter syndrome

After two years at Sky, he was then offered the chance to join an energy and research consultancy, based in Edinburgh, as a software engineer – a moment he credits with banishing his imposter syndrome.

“As soon as I got the role at Wood Mackenzie as a software engineer, the imposter syndrome disappeared,” he says. “I came in at the same level as some very experienced engineers so I knew I’d been hired based on merit. It was a huge confidence boost.”

Calum joined at a time when the business had just hired a new senior leadership team and was embarking on a major technical transformation, pivoting from manual data grafting to becoming a data-driven organisation.

He says: “We were rebuilding the whole data and product infrastructure from the ground up – it was like launching a new company within an established industry leader. There were 30 engineers when I arrived and within a year that number had grown to more than 100.

“Our platform was built on AWS using React, Python, and NodeJS, with a predominantly serverless architecture – all incredibly trendy! Not long after joining, I was given the chance to travel to India to work with a consultancy we had partnered with. I was responsible for mentoring junior engineers, and bootstrapping a number of development efforts. It was a fantastic experience both personally and professionally, and taught me a lot about how to teach technical concepts, foster team spirit, and scale productivity beyond that of an individual contributor. I leveraged all of these skills when I returned to Scotland, becoming tech lead for our commercial API service, hiring and leading a new engineering team to further its development. 

“The initial delivery of this service had been completed under intense commercial pressure, and whilst we had hit the market on time, we brought a lot of technical debt along with us. Once the team hit comfortable velocity and we had bought ourselves some breathing space, we had to backfill a great deal of monitoring, observability, and automated testing. It was a brilliant end-to-end experience because it allowed me to see the compromises teams make to get things live and the pain this can cause down the road, but I also saw the process of going back and sorting these problems out.”

Calum (right) at Holi – the festival of colour – while in India

Calum contributes an enormous amount of his development to his time at Wood Mackenzie, but he admits he reached a point where he needed a fresh challenge.

“I was working in full flight as a tech lead, churning out features at a consistent pace,” he says. “The journey to get there had transformed me as an engineer and team leader, and after a steep climb I had hit what felt like a comfort zone.”

It was at the start of 2020 when he attended an Infinity Works’ organised tech meetup in Edinburgh on serverless architecture. After speaking with a few people from Infinity Works, he admits he was sold on his next career move.

He explains: “Infinity Works ran the only serverless meetup in the city which immediately made me consider them as thought leaders in this space, but I was taken aback by how technically brilliant everyone was that I heard from. Following the talks, I caught up with a couple of the senior leaders and it all felt very natural.

Infinity Works stood out from its competitors by offering the chance to use the latest tech with huge brands, across a variety of sectors, but without the corporate culture you find if you joined these organisations in-house."

“In particular, I strongly identify as a full-stack engineer, and could not consider a role which would box me into a particular technology or methodology. The idea of becoming a polyglot, or T-shaped, consultant and engineer was clearly core to Infinity Works’ culture.”

Calum knew that joining a company during a global pandemic would be very different from anything he had previously experienced. Nevertheless, he has been able to build strong relationships across the business and he puts this down to Infinity Works’ people-focused culture.

He says: “I’ve really enjoyed my time at Infinity Works because I’m learning every day. One of the founders said that working three years as a consultant is the equivalent to working 10 years in an in-house role, and he isn’t lying. I’m surrounded by intelligent people who are using modern software engineering to solve complex business problems.

“Everyone is empowered to fix issues wherever they see them and we find the right technology to meet the challenge, rather than shoehorning a limited status quo to fit. Even though I’ve only been able to visit the office in Edinburgh once due to coronavirus restrictions, I feel very connected and like I’m working with a great group of mates. A key part of this is knowing that everyone is extremely passionate and energetic about their work and delivering for our customers.”

Focusing on the value of data

As a principal consultant, Calum works as technical lead for the data team of a leading UK brand, driving the development of its cutting-edge data science platform. This cloud-native rebuild leverages AWS machine learning and data services such as Sagemaker, Glue, and Athena, with automation and orchestration using the AWS Serverless stack. 

“Moving into data science has been fascinating as this is a field that I’ve always been interested in,” he explains. “On a day-to-day basis, I’m building exciting big-data tooling, developing cloud infrastructure, and delivering machine learning solutions in a scalable and repeatable way in production, which is often a hard task to achieve in a large organisation.

Like many digital transformation efforts, getting real value from machine learning requires significant investment and leadership buy-in, and it needs production-grade engineering to complement the work done by data scientists. 

“As the tech lead for the data engagement, which covers the wider data platform, I’m also responsible for supporting the long term data strategy of the organisation, working with its in-house team. This requires that I take a broad view of their various components and challenges, then propose appropriate cloud-native solutions to solve problems in the most efficient manner. A large part of my role is stakeholder engagement and ensuring we deliver quickly, safely, and consistently.”

As someone who lives in Scotland’s capital, Calum is excited about the future for Infinity Works’ Edinburgh practice and is looking forward to the opportunities that lie ahead.

He says: “I’m really happy to have joined Infinity Works at such an exciting time. The practice continues to grow and this has given me opportunities to work on bids and proposals across the business in both the public and private sectors. One day I might be working with a challenger bank, the next I’ll be helping an established organisation in a different sector. The variety of work is the reason I joined a tech consultancy.

“Our headcount in Edinburgh will double during this year, so new starters will have a rare opportunity to help us grow and then step up as we mature as a practice. Working for Infinity Works enables consultants like myself to help drive the Scottish economy, but also lead the way on some UK-wide projects, too. Tech is going to be key for many organisations in the aftermath of the coronavirus recovery and it’s exciting that we’re able to work at the heart of this.”

A career at Infinity Works

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Written by Andrew Frost