Careers in O.R.
ProfileS - Mark Westcombe

Mark Westcombe


I can't say that I had a career prior to O.R., instead I'll call it a disjointed employment history. This was 6 years that included: labourer on an organic Italian hill farm; deckhand on a yacht in Croatia; au-pair to a single parent family; English language teacher; architect's assistant; language translator; civil servant; and study skills lecturer (of the ones I still remember). Now as an O.R. facilitator and lecturer, I probably draw more on the skills I developed during those years, than the OR techniques I trained in as a semi-mature student doing a Maths / O.R. degree. The training was important though to help me draw together all the lessons and know how and where to apply them. And however people orientated my work now is, I'm still essentially modelling.

What originally attracted me to O.R. was the ad-hoc nature of all the work and being able to flit from one project to another - I didn't then, and still don't know now, how to sit still. I was after an intellectually serious profession and I was also frustrated by society's ill-formed, knee-jerk decision making and believed the rational approaches O.R. seemed to offer good training. So I started a degree in O.R. at Lancaster and typically, for the first 15 months at least, threw all my energies into learning German. I took a year-off too between my 2nd and 3rd years and spent 9 months with British Airways analysing the different ways they set ticket prices; 3 months on an Erasmus in Germany; and 3 months working with the software group of a German consultancy that provides O.R. and AI solutions to industry. I was all ready for an international career in O.R., only to find that British companies couldn't see the use for tri-lingual managers.

What had fascinated me most coming back to the last year of my degree was the complexity of decision making and how 'just muddling through' was often good enough. So instead I went and spent 2 years, almost in apprenticeship mode, working with a soft-O.R. research/consultancy group in Glasgow. There I was exposed to, and learnt a lot from, senior management doing big engineering projects like upgrading the West Coast line and inputting into a board decision on a £3,000m project to operate the London Underground. As a young person O.R. can get you into unusually high places. It was whilst in Glasgow I started facilitating using soft-O.R. around project management and still find myself in this environment many years on! Though Lancaster has now taken me back as their Director of the BSc in Project Management. Teaching is something I still enjoy doing from my early start as an English teacher and teaching something I enjoy doing as a consultant is a real privilege.

In between these 2 jobs I worked for 6 years for my own company, attivation, providing management consultancy, facilitation and even occasionally the odd bit of number crunching analysis. I still do consult to companies as part of my role at the university – to keep my hand in and up to date with the real issues that managers face. I’ve mostly worked with companies starting new projects, whether they want to go ahead with them and then help them think through the process of managing them. This might be bidding for a large engineering project; talking through managing the risks of such projects; putting together a company's strategic plan; deciding what an organisation needs from a new IT system; or helping a group regain focus and prioritise their activities. This can be in the commercial sector or working with small public sector.

I’ve also taken my skills outside the commercial environment and worked with small community groups. I’ve seen bringing the rational decision making of O.R. and sensitivity to process make real impact: whether to the board of a national charity that I’m a trustee of; local community and environmental groups; election campaigns for the Green Party; or Lancaster Cohousing, a community enterprise that I’m a director of that is delivering socially sustainable housing and community to the highest environmental standards.

All of my work is about people, indeed much of it is about getting people to go and do stuff. It's the people that define O.R. for me too and why I like being a part of this community. There's a good proportion of creative, but analytical, thinkers that make the work stimulating and satisfying. I've been lucky to travel the world a lot, but like most O.R. people, I have had the chance to see all the different worlds that people live in so close by and to learn something about the different ways different people and different organisations all operate. I don't know how long I'll be able to claim that I'm still ‘an O.R. person’, but it's given me a great entry into professional life and a flexible springboard to wherever I go next.

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