Colin Campbell

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A Life in IT

Colin Campbell has been working in IT for over 40 years, and he's seen it all. From the early days of mainframes to the latest cloud-based technologies, Colin has been there and done it all.

In this interview, Colin talks about his journey through the IT industry, from his early days as a developer to his current role as a freelancer. He also shares his insights on the future of IT, and what it takes to be successful in this ever-changing field.


Read his interview:

Can you introduce yourself?

It’s Colin Campbell, I’m sort of early 60’s put it like that. I’ve been working close on 40 years really, so fairly long established in the world of work and business. I live in Orpington out on the edge of London and Kent. I’ve lived down here for over 30 years, but originally from the North of Scotland.


And what industry are you and your business in?

I’ve always worked in or around the software technology space. I started out really as a developer building software and software products, and sort of morphed over the years to pretty much the terminology of the day of Digital Transformation IT Consultancy.

That’s kind of the broad sort of sector I operate in. And specifically, I am a Salesforce consultant. So I work with businesses to use the Salesforce platform, the CRM platform and the cloud platform that Salesforce provides to basically help businesses. And that pretty much covers lots of industry sectors, it’s not sort of sector specific.

But from the point of view of defining myself it’s pretty much IT consultancy and business systems consultancy. Really the best way to define it.

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How did you discover your niche?

I’ve worked across a range of sectors. The beauty of working with technology is that everybody needs and uses technology. And there are some things that everybody does the same. And there are some things that people do differently based on what their business is.

And so you can get by without having to focus on any one specific sector like retail, or automotive and manufacturing, anything like that. For whatever reason, I’ve always avoided those sorts of labels and there are good things out of that. And there are bad things, too. But that’s just where I ended up, as a generalist really, from that sort of traditional sector point of view.

But from the point of view of defining myself it’s pretty much IT consultancy and business systems consultancy. Really the best way to define it.


And how long have you been self-employed?

So, the current stint is quite short, it’s only 18 months. Previous to that, about 10 years ago, I was self-employed for about two and a half years. So, I’ve gone through a couple of attempts at it. And the recent attempt is probably where I'm going to settle – I can’t see myself ever jumping back into the land of the employed and payroll etc.


Were you in a similar employed role?

Yeah, prior to going self-employed, I was working with a number of Salesforce partners. Basically, doing what I do now, but on the payroll – system integration, consultancy organisation, that sort of thing.


And what was the main reason to become self-employed for a second time?

There’s always been a driver there to get to that sort of status. And ultimately, I like the control that it gives you, the ability to set your own direction, the ability to sort of work out just what you’re good at, and what you want to do.

And I think it gives you the ultimate client customer experience. Pretty much everything I’ve done has really been driven by customers along the way. I’ve always worked in customer facing organisations doing either delivery of products and services, support or sales. Going into the freelancing thing gives you that control over how you want to work with customers.

It actually allows you to offer customers the best value proposition, really, because clearly there’s minimal overheads. It’s just me. In order for me to sell my services, I need to find a value proposition, I need to find things that customers value and that they’ll pay money for. So being freelance to me represents the ideal in terms of delivering on that customer value proposition.

And being able to make the most of it and get all of the feedback around that. You know pretty well when you’ve done a good job, you know when you’ve done a bad job. So, it’s really just being in control of those things. And it was kind of always heading in that direction – it’s no regrets having got there.


Why did you return to a job after your first stint at self-employment?

It was really to try and establish the niche. Being able to work on your own, you’ve got to have something that you can describe and define in terms of what you do, and why people want you to do it. And previously, I wasn’t really in that position.

That was when I came across Salesforce and realised that was a system that clearly solved a lot of the problems I had been trying to solve for years in various other roles. And so the question then was , how do you best get up to speed, and get skilled up, and develop that niche. And to me, the best way to do it was to work as part of other organisations to get more experience. And then from there, you can move out, you can do your own thing, and then you’re in a position to make the most of it.

So it was really about being able to find that niche, be clear about what it is, and be confident that it can give you a platform for doing what you want to do.


So really, the last 10 years has been structured to start your own business eventually?

Exactly. And the interesting question is, could I have done it earlier? And could I have done it by jumping straight into trying to do what I do immediately as a freelancer, without going through that employed route? Obviously you will never know the answer to that.

I was talking to somebody the other day, another IPSE member, who was saying “Well, could I retrain and start working immediately as a freelancer in this business.” And it was kind of hard to answer. I could describe the route that I’d taken, but it’s hard to say if there are any other shortcuts. 

But yes, ultimately the path was always to get to where I am today.


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What’s the main objective for this stage of your career and business?

I suppose it’s to develop the brand, i.e. become more known in the industry. And I think that’s principally around trying to get yourself more established outside the peer network. So having worked in the industry, in this space, for about 10 years, and having worked in the ecosystem that Salesforce provides, you tend to know all of the main players. You meet people, you work with people, you get your name well known around those circles.

But to me, clearly, it’s the customer that counts. It’s not the person you work alongside. It’s actually being able to develop that brand in the end users and customers. And so that’s one objective, to develop your own brand and get it in the face of the end customer more than you are. And that obviously gives you clear, specific advantages, and more opportunities to develop business. So that’s probably the fundamental objective, and from that objective everything else probably flows.

The ability to do more strategic work is one thing, and operate at a higher level within organisations. Work as close to the top level as you can, work with CEOs, that sort of thing. Rather than just business functions, business areas within an organisation. 

And then all the stuff that comes with it in terms of the money side of things, to be able to charge a higher rate, that kind of thing. And ultimately, have a business that you’re in control of, and that you’re effectively not flogging yourself five days a week in order just to keep the wheels turning. That you’ve got quality time you can plan to invest in yourself.


What are the tactics you’re using to develop the brand and extend your network? What’s worked and what are you thinking about doing next?

A couple of things, I guess. One is you’ve got to try and find that niche within the niche, within the niche kind of thing. It’s really focussing in on specific areas that you can clearly identify and position yourself around, which makes you different from the generality. So, I work in this area, using this subset of products, within that sort of broad platform. Which is really what I’ve been able to do to some extent, and it’s developing that further. 

And the other is really trying to be different. Trying to present yourself differently, and so, doing things like content marketing, making your content different, making your messages different from just the general.

If you go on social media there’s a lot of noise. And how much of it you would deem quality, and how much is just sort of run of the mill, everybody’s got their own views on that. To me, if you’re going to do something, try and do it well, try and aim for the quality side of the spectrum.


And has your content been successful in finding client work?

Yeah, absolutely. So, I launched anewsletter last year, and I just took some content off the shelf that had been developing for quite a while actually,maybe one or two years, and just published it. And that immediately led to somebody picking it up, and saying okay, this fits with an opportunity we’ve got, can we work with you in this area.

And I basically provided advisory services to them over the delivery of a specific piece of work for one of their customers. And that was a U.S Salesforce partner. So pretty much in exactly the same business, but in a different geography. And they were needing assistance in a specific niche area. So that brought all those things together.


Your current clients are mostly UK based, but would you like to work on more overseas projects?

Absolutely. I would like to do more. There are some interesting drivers, because fundamentally everything I deliver is in the cloud. Technically the internet has evolved to be able to deliver services out through the cloud. So, you can do the work pretty much anywhere. Now that we’ve gone post-Covid, it was always the case, but it’s even more now that pretty much the majority of the work environment is remote.

And once you get to that, then it doesn’t really matter where the customer is. Ultimately, if you never actually sit down with them, then it doesn’t matter if they’re in London, or if they’re in New York. So, it would be good to expand the horizons from that point of view, in terms of the geography, and that does have benefits.

Certainly, you look at the pound and the dollar exchange rate, then it’s probably more lucrative to sell your services in places like North America now than it is locally. Just by looking at the exchange rates and what those markets will pay in U.S dollar terms. And it also has the good thing that when you look at situations like IR35, then there’s clear benefits as well.


What’s the biggest worry or fear you have about being self-employed?

It would probably be a different answer now than it was 10 years ago. It was a case of when I first started, can you make any of this work? And is there a repeat formula there, that you can get to, where you’re not reinventing everything each time you’re trying to look for a new assignment?

Whereas now it’s different, because I’ve identified my subject matter area, I’ve seen it work. I’ve got a recipe that I know works, that firts well with the market. I know there’s a market.

I suppose the concerns could be that ultimately, there would be some sort of external factor which basically just said “Okay, that’s it. It’s got to stop.” But there’s nothing I could do about that anyway, it’s probably something I couldn’t plan for. And that’s probably it at the moment, really.

So, I think from my point of view, it’s quite a comfortable sort of situation. And I realise this isn’t the same for everybody in the freelance world. I think I’m probably quite lucky. And just by virtue of having gone into it in later life, I don’t have the same sort of obligations and financial constraints you’ve got when you’re younger.


Have you got any particular hobbies or interests? And has self-employment helped you to find a better balance between work and life?

That’s one of the plans! It’s yet to sort of really materialise from that point of view, but I can see it taking shape, because for example, on my current assignment I pretty much said “Well, I work four days a week.” So that leaves me the weekend, plus an extra free day which I may or may not spend on the business working on some other situations or opportunities, or I might just do my own thing and do something completely different with that time.

So it’s certainly opening up that sort of mode of operating. I’ve got a lot of interests, I guess I’ve probably come to realise I’ll never have enough time to explore all the potential interests. I’ll go and play a game of golf if the opportunity arises, but I’m not on the course every week of the year. 

One long ambition is to do more in terms of things like sailing. We did a sailing holiday this year, and we’ve done that in the past. So I’m going through some sailing knowledge building, doing the certificates and tickets you need to get yourself in a position where you can hire a boat and do something with it on your own, under your own steam.

One of my hobbies is miniature wargaming. So, I’m generally interested in all things military history and being able to, just basically, play with toys. That’s what it comes down to. But it’s quite a thinking hobby, because you’ve got to understand a little bit of background, the history of the thing that you’re gaming. And then you’ve got to understand a mechanism for how you play the game. It’s good because I’m a member of a club, you go and meet other people, you sit around a table with people who have a similar sort of inclination, it’s quite good from a social point of view.

It's also got a business side too. Because ultimately, a lot of the thinking you go through, potentially strategic type thinking and tactical thinking, carries across well to a business environment. And there are things like business wargaming, and business gaming, where people try and game their business, so there’s clear synergies and overlaps. How do you win? How do you get yourself in a position where you’re at an advantage? All of these things are fundamental concepts.


If you had to pick a theme song for your career and business, what would it be?

Oh man, now you’re talking. “I will survive” jumps to mind immediately, and “Never give up.” Something along those lines.


Do you have any heroes in life or business that provide you with inspiration?

There are certainly individuals that I would look at, and you would try and copy certain sorts of elements. I suppose in my business, the archetypal guy probably turned out to be the sort of Steve Jobs type figure. Who clearly solved a lot of problems, and drove a lot of change. And so, he’s probably one of the individuals you’d highlight.

From a more general business point of view, I think, maybe from a sporting context, somebody like Alex Ferguson. I’ve clearly got a lot of time for what he did. I’m not a Man Utd supporter, but the guy’s a Scotsman, he did well, and having read his autobiography and seen the things he’d gone through, and then ultimately what he’s achieved, I think he’s a figure that you can learn a lot from.

One of my complaints actually, one of the things I’m always interested to discuss with people is that I think generally in the UK, there is a lack of top managerial-type figures that really command the stage, if you know what I mean. You’ve got the classic guys who are successful, maybe people like the Alan Sugar’s, who are well known, but  for one reason or another, are very few in number.

To me, they’re the sort of figures you can clearly learn a lot from, but they may not be the sort of figures you’d want to ultimately put up on a pedestal and respect. I just find in UK business, I think that is a dearth of that top level sort of intellectual management, leadership type figures that could actually do the likes of what Steve Jobs did, for example.

I’ve had disappointments working for companies like startups where really it was either there was no vision within management, or there was no ecosystem like the VCs that they have over in the U.S. There was no one who was willing to get their head out of the accounting books and see that we can’t run this business on quarterly profit figures, we’re going to have a vision as to what we think this could ultimately do. And that just seems to be totally lacking.

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Are there any sites or apps you regularly use for work or inspiration?

There’s clearly a lot of content out there. I find myself using LinkedIn more than I probably want to, getting sucked into a lot of idle time, which is totally unproductive. And I’m trying to pull myself away from it. But it’s a tool that serves a purpose, so I’ve got to spend a bit of time on it.

Generally speaking, the general mainstream media I just find a little bit disappointing. I’d struggle to name anything specific. I sign up for a lot of stuff, but there’s nothing I would go to regularly.


What does your workday look like right now?

Yeah, I mean it’s pretty much focused on delivery of a specific project. So currently I’m working for 3-6 months on a delivery engagement for a specific client which takes up the bulk of the time.

So, the work day is very much focused on a delivery plan or schedule. We basically have a scrum board with 60 or 70 items, and we’ve just finished that delivery. And we’re moving onto things like training, and user acceptance, and stuff like that. But it is operating that sort of probably fairly boring and mundane cranking stuff out at the moment.


And how has IPSE membership helped you get started or develop your new business and career?

I’ve just started to attend some of the face-to-face eventsnd had a really good event , for example, in London. So just starting to network, and that event led to some follow-up conversations with other folks in IPSE, which is good. So that certainly ticks the box. And I can see that there could be a lot of potential for general networking and idea sharing.

You’ve certainly got a good content repository. I’ve taken one of your contract document templates and I’ve used that. And from an ongoing point of view, being able to monitor the state and situation with things like IR35.

Signing up for the Incubator was almost like a sanity check. I have been freelance before, I’ve worked with a lot of small companies, but it was just being able to say okay, is there anything I’m missing?


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