From bowling alleys to rail mega projects - HS2 planner Simon shares his story

If you like working with people and making things happen, you can find a great career even without going to university. Simon Taylor tells us what he loves about being a planner.

After his GCSEs, Simon did computer science at college and his first job was in a bowling alley. Now he's got a top job looking at how the HS2 rail mega project is all planned out! Here's how it all came about...

Tell us about your job...

HS2 is an enormous project to create a new railway. My job as Head of Programme Planning is to try to make sense of information from each part of the project, so that we are successful in delivering the programme. By putting systems and processes in place and working with a great team of planners, I can make sure we focus on the important things. As you can imagine, I get to work with lots of different teams, which I enjoy because I am a pretty outgoing bloke!

My job involves a mixture of meetings, emails and presentations, not just with people inside the business but also external organisations like Transport for London and the government. I’ve also got involved in going to schools to talk about what I do and how I got here – I really enjoy sharing my story with young people just starting to think about their career.

What 3 top skills or qualities are important?

I think communication skills are really important. I need to understand what people do, which means a lot of listening. For example, I am no expert in archaeology, but I need to learn about what it means to our project, so I can include it in our plan.

It helps to be able to visualise – of course there are some great planning tools like Microsoft Project which can help you with this. It’s great when all this data and information becomes a bit more real and understandable, both to me and others I need to share it with. There’s some creativity in that too.

I also think our planning work becomes the ‘conscience of the programme’, helping us to do the right thing. It’s easy to lose sight of your targets and the big picture, but it’s my job to keep that in view.

What did you want to be when you were younger?

I loved art and painting when I was little and did lots of plays and things like that, especially in primary school. In secondary school, I got into graphic design and technical drawing and this influenced my early career. I must admit I didn’t really think too much about career options, but I always think that you don’t know what you will enjoy till you try it!

How did you get into doing this as your job?

Early on I worked in restaurants and really enjoyed the interaction and instant feedback. I started to work on technical drawings at a steel fabricators and this helped me to move into ‘food service design’ – which means designing the outlet, like a coffee bar in a station. I started to use 3D visualisation software here, and enjoyed it.

As much as I enjoyed the obvious creative bit, I was interested in the processes of making things happen. I’d be working with standard ‘lead times’ (this means the time it takes to get something done). If someone told me it took 12 weeks to make something, I wanted to prove that it could be done more quickly and more efficiently. I moved into project management at London Underground, and then planning.

I don’t think anyone who’s been in planning for a long time can remember how or why they got into it. I just know that once I started planning, I loved it and never looked back.

Did training or courses help you get to where you are today?

After my GCSEs, I went to college in Lewes to do Computer Science – then I relocated to London and decided to get a job straight away. My first job was working in a bowling alley!

Software courses really help in planning – learning software like Microsoft Project is really useful. And understanding the commercial side of things, like contracts, is very valuable.

If you’re not cut out for university, like me, keep in mind you don’t need a degree to be a planner. One of my best apprentices at London Underground used to work in a cafeteria at Debenhams. I really enjoyed making a difference by supporting the apprentice programme at TfL – at one point, I had 22 apprentices working for me! There is now a range of training, qualifications and routes available where you can get hands-on experience, including apprenticeships.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to do your job?

Ask questions! Don’t be afraid to make mistakes - you’re not born with knowledge.

Focus on doing the best job you can, not on your long-term career. You can create opportunities by having the right work ethic.

Get on with people, be humble and never put yourself above anyone else.

Any top job hunting tips to share?

Don’t talk about yourself in the third person on a CV.

Use LinkedIn and be professional: you might need a new email address to present the right image! Get someone who knows you to look at your CV or job application.

Don’t be afraid to look for an internship or work experience – it’s a great way of getting a taste for a job and working out what you’d like to do.

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