In my last post (What I learned from my previous jobs – Part 5), I covered my eight-month co-op period at DFAIT, and what I experienced, but I left something out. The “what I learned” part. It seems odd to title the blog post about what I learned, and then leave it out, but I left it out because the important things weren’t learned during the actual eight months. It came afterwards when I had a chance to evaluate the experience.
As I mentioned in the post, I was not a policy wonk who lived and breathed the federal government policy world. Sure, I knew generally there was “Cabinet”, but I didn’t really know who was in it and which committees were full, etc. I didn’t even know if the PM was always there. I vaguely knew, but I wasn’t some Parliament Hill staffer-wannabe. Nor had I ever once thought I would want to be.
Yet the preparation of the deck for Cabinet was fast, challenging, exciting. And the PM saw my charts. That was pretty heady stuff for someone who was used to installing software on a secretary’s computer.
I also realized that I had different skills from other people. Sure, it was clear in ways that had only been hinted at previously that I was light years ahead on computers over most people. Heck, even some of the secretaries weren’t sure what a mouse did. It was disturbing at times. But I could do it. It was clearly value-added and valued openly.
I also started to see myself as capable. That bears some explanation.
I had done some good work in various places. But almost always, it was “nice to have” extras that nobody else was doing. It wasn’t “this must be done”. And usually, there were no comparators — nobody working exactly beside me that I could see myself in “competition” with that I could use as a yardstick. I’m come close with the computer support office, but I was a graduate student and older, they were still in their undergraduate program in some cases, etc.
Yet at DFAIT, they NEEDED me to help with that first project. Then they needed me to do a project for distributing brochures. That doesn’t sound like much of a challenge but here’s the thing. Several of their sub-funds were geared towards university. They had been up and running for over a year and nobody had sent the brochures to the various universities.
You want to know why? Go ahead, think of a very simple reason. And no, it isn’t because they didn’t have anyone to do it.
It was simply they had no list to use. They suggested I use the library to create a list of every university in the country, figure out which ones had programs we were likely to target, particularly scientists doing research, and we’d send them the brochures. Sure, it was pre-internet, but why would I do it that way?
I suggested instead that SOMEONE, somewhere in government must have a viable list. I asked some basic questions, didn’t know which departments even really existed, but it didn’t take long to land on NSERC. I called them, they transferred me, I explained what I wanted, and within two days, they sent me a disk with over 2000 names on it. Researchers who were in their database of people who had received or simply applied for research money. I could even filter a little bit for some Asia-Pacific links.
Yet no one had thought to do that. It sat on someone’s to-do list for over a year, and it wasn’t a lack of money. I figured I would be the one who had to stuff the envelopes, not very exciting, but no, they hired a temp to do that. The fact that I started dating her after the temp period was up is irrelevant. What’s relevant was that I was seen as the person to MANAGE the project, hiring the junior student types I used to be when I was at the library, and I could supervise them.
I also started to see the variety of jobs that were around. Foreign service officers tended to be political or trade, but there were other types running around. One of my supervisors was an AS (admin services). She wasn’t even permanent. And while there was a freeze on hiring, DFAIT had something called “post-secondary recruitment” where they had formal competitions each year that you could apply for, just as I had the co-op process.
Speaking of which, even getting the job was an eye-opener because I started to see that government job interviews were pretty similar from one to the next. I didn’t know how much so yet, but there was a germ of an idea there that has stayed with me throughout my career.
So all of that was going on. I liked Ottawa, I liked the idea of policy coordination, I even liked logistics. I learned about multilateral organizations and what APEC in particular was starting to do.
But right up until the end of the summer, I saw myself as “good but unique”. I was valued because I was different, I had different skills. Marketable, valuable skills. That’s what I thought.
Right up until the last day. When suddenly I was asked to stay. And not to stay and do my own job. No, I was asked to stay and do a DESK OFFICER’S job. One that had been being done by someone quite senior, quite experienced, and well, old. Not really, he was probably 40, but that was old to my young 25-year-old self. The guy was fluent in Mandarin for example. He had lived overseas. He had multiple degrees. He was good. Eccentric, but good.
And they wanted to “promote” me from co-op student to a full-time contractor to do his job. I was in shock for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that there was someone who wasn’t hiring me because of my computer skills, nor because of my unique logistics skills, and since there were other people around and available, not just because I was the warm body of the day. He was asking me to stay because he and the other officers who had discussed the option saw me as a viable replacement.
It was a huge confidence builder for me. Maybe they saw potential, maybe they just recognized skill sets I didn’t even see in the same way. I don’t know.
But I knew I had graduated from a warm extra body doing the “nice to haves” to being a “person capable of being a full staff member”.