This is a fictional account of three people choosing their initial career path , the choices they make, and the consequences. See the four key tips at the end.

The story was written to help interns in the Chipkoo Labs with their big decisions of how to plan their career paths.

The story is about support activities in the intelligence profession – researchers, analysts, liaison and technologists. Apart from the obsessive secrecy, intel support is like many modern professions. It has a combination of areas that are changing fast, and practices and attitudes that are often constrained by the past.

A moment at the beginning of a career path for three new starters. (Stock photo.)
A moment at the beginning of a career path for three new starters. (Stock photo.)

Story, part 1 – five years ago

“They called us newbies.” Lizzie smiled. She was excited by the new job, and she was enjoying the company of the two others who had made it through the selection process. “Look at this New Starter hint.” She pointed to the computer screen. “It says don’t expect career gratification in the first year. What an awful way to express it.”

Lizzie had joined the intelligence agency as an afterthought in life. It wasn’t the kind of role for musicians, but the opportunities for musicians were few and very badly paid. Better to have it as a hobby.

Saleem wrinkled his nose. “I had someone laugh at me when I asked about career paths and goals. What’s wrong with having a career path?” Saleem was the oldest of the three of them. For him this was a career change after an abortive start in marketing research. His background showed in his carefully-styled appearance and controlled movements.

The third of the new starters was Ciara. “My parents have already planned a career path for me,” she declared. “But they don’t have a clue how it really works in here. They think modern intelligence agencies are like in the movies, and that I want to be a spy.” Ciara adjusted her specs. She had chosen then to compliment the braiding in her thick black hair.

“Oops! Did you try to explain?” Lizzie asked.

“I said I will be doing office stuff, and that most of it is repetitive.”

Lizzie flexed her fingers, like she did when exercising before playing the piano. “I’ve got my eyes on the counter-intelligence team at the end of our corridor. Their head is friendly. I want to find a way of getting transferred there.”

“He’s friendly to your face, then when you pass he looks at your bum.”

Lizzie shrugged. “He’s a tease. That’s all. I don’t mind.” She paused, contemplating how she should explain it to her family. By any definition, counter-intelligence was the most extreme form of spying. She turned to Saleem. “What about you? What are your plans?”

“I’m going to be the very best at everything they give me. And when there are new things, I will volunteer. They will know that they can always depend on me.”

“That’s a tactic. What is your goal?”

“To climb up to the point where I am respected and have enough income to care for my wife and children.”

“You’ll have to find a wife first! That’s not easy when she has to pass security checks.” Lizzie stopped. They were talking about career paths, not family ambitions. Although one could not entirely be separated from the other. “Ciara, what are your plans? How do you intend to escape the repetition?”

Ciara pushed back her office chair and folded her arms. “My plan is to have no plan. Once the first months are up, I’ll apply for something different here. And then after a year or two I will try something completely different. And I’ll keep going like that.”

“For ever?” Lizzie was horrified at the thought of drifting permanently.

“No. Until I know what my heart wants.”

Story, part 2 – today

The three friends waited until the end of their fourth year before celebrating. They started with an Italian meal, then walked for a while along the river, and finally they arrived at an ice cream parlour famed for its exotic varieties and crumbly biscuits. There was a corner where they could talk quietly.

“It didn’t work out the way we expected,” they admitted.

Lizzie got her appointment in Counter Intelligence. At first it seemed a fantastic breakthrough. Her new boss was attentive, he built up her ego, and gave her a variety of tasks. And after a month, he stopped looking at the shapes of her body. But the counter intelligence team were so far ahead of her that they saw her merely as the boss’s pretty assistant. She wasn’t allowed access to the big secrets and she knew she would never win their respect. So she watched and learnt, and attended language school, and after two years she applied for a research post on the Asia Desk. She found herself building profiles for key people across the region, and she loved it.

Saleem’s stuck it out in the research team in which they had all started. He studied and took exams, but there were no openings in the leadership roles. So he  volunteered, he excelled, and he waited. When his team lead left on maternity leave, he had an opportunity to prove himself, and when she returned he was given a small new team to manage. “It’s a slow start. I don’t mind. I have a long way to go.” Since they first met, he had also married the woman he had befriended during adolescence. They were talking about having children.

Ciara frowned. “But your whole area is being overrun by artificial intelligence. The remaining work is due to be distributed among the other divisions.”

Saleem picked at a thin biscuit stick. “I will adapt to the new division.” He said it with the same confidence he used when talking to his wife. “But I will be consistent.”

Ciara knew he was talking about her. She had drifted around research areas. Six months in this job, nine in that, three months in that disaster area. It wasn’t the research that made her move, but the people. The people were focussed on the ritual of their jobs and on team bonding. Then after three years she made a big jump sideways and took up a post in liaison. This was a people-focussed role. She liaised with people in other agencies, public bodies and government. She was building friendships of a kind, while navigating the tight political and security rules.

“I love Liaison. Liaison brings together everything I’ve learnt,” she declared and put a scoop of ice-cream into her mouth.

“Should we propose a toast?” Lizzie asked. She looked at her glass of fizzy drink. She was the only one of the three of them who drank alcohol, and she’d had to give it up for the evening. “We could toast the angels sitting in the clouds and laughing their socks off when we originally talked about our career paths.”

At work, I’m an IT professional. At play, I study modern intelligence practices and write stories about them. I’ve found the secret intelligence world helps me understand our own one.

Adrian Cowderoy, February 2021

Tips on making your own career path

Over the last months I have had the luck to be able to help with mentoring interns in their key journey from university to a variety of new professions. They kept asking questions of how to plan their career path. So here are some thoughts, that are generic to almost any skill-based profession.

Can I learn from my parent’s professional career path?

Not directly. Today’s world is massively different to the one of the previous generation. We have breakneck technological change, massive environmental and social challenges, and a “world order” that is evolving into something entirely new. These are driving changes in the way organisations work. So if you want to learn, look at how they handled personal challenges and change.

Should I plan my career or stay flexible?

Good jobs will disappear with automation, and new opportunities will appear. And some jobs that are currently rare and well-paid will become common and competitive.

Don’t assume there is a “job for life” in an age of automation and shifting balances between roles. Your safety net in professional life, is your ability to adopt new skills and even change your career.

What strategy should I choose for my career path?

Automation and complexity forces us towards specialisation, where humans do the things that the computers can’t. From a career perspective you need to choose between three strategies:

1) To specialise at producing things or delivering professional services. This can bring good income if your skill is scarce, but in time lots of people will learn that skill.

2) To focus on support tasks. Complex specialisation needs managers to cope with getting teams to work together. Advanced technologies create security challenges. And the Internet of Things generates a huge need for networking and support technologies.

3) To do jobs that are skipped by the specialists and supporting roles. (In the American Gold Rush, the easiest money was for the people in the towns who supplied the gold diggers.) But beware, these opportunities tend to be transient. Be ready to move on.

Should I plan a safe career path?

That depends on your intents and your nature.
Some of us are driven by their destinies – to be a doctor or architect, for instance. Some yearn for security because of their current lives, but when they encounter regularity they get bored. And for some others, we don’t know.
You may not know until you try your first job. I never conceived of joining the computer industry, and when I began it was not a profession that appeared on the list of options at schools. I’ve now spent decades working there, adapting to its changes.

More on this website about career paths

The intelligence collectors’ AI Awayday is a 2-page story about two intelligence collectors whose jobs are taken over by artificial intelligence. (Intelligence collection is the process of handling the vast quantities of information available to the intelligence services, and identifying what may be useful to the researchers.)

Intelligence research specialist jobs – 14 tips for survival provides an example of the considerations for one professional role.

N.B. My own career history has a series of career changes that came for good reasons and by luck. Whether this is a good example, is for others to decide.

The choice of career path should be yours. Choose well!
The choice of career path should be yours. Choose well!