If it matters…
Right now, late 2022, I’m sitting at my desk within a few hundred metres of, and overlooking, the wild Atlantic Ocean. We are in our comfortable and spacious apartment in unhurried, safe northern Portugal. Fantastic location and setting, best ever for us.
How and why here?
Already some way into my Golden Years at this stage, or retirement, to say that my life up to now has been ‘unusual’ might be an understatement. It wasn’t all planned that way – just the way it turned out, through rough and smooth over many years! What I have always found is, if there are highs, and there always will be, enjoy them, build on them. And if there are some not-so-good patches, search for and be open to creative solutions – there always will be one or more. Be adaptable.
So if anyone’s interested then, let’s wind the movie back and get the story going.
One book by the prolific writer Stephen King, ‘On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft’ has always inspired me. The first sentence from his Second Foreword, page XV, drifts through my thoughts, ‘This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit’. When he wrote that book in 2001 he may not have had blogs in mind, but…! So with that, let’s go.
Earliest memories go back to my roots in a rural setting in southern Ireland. Being quite a handful as a kid, I was packed off to boarding school at about age 12. Following which I stumbled through secondary and College education without any real idea or guidance where it was all heading, what I wanted to do, or even what the possibilities might have been. Still, life was good, so much better than so many have experienced in their younger years and triumphed over. Not sure I’d recommend boarding school though. But maybe things have changed!
There appeared to be a dearth of real employment opportunity in Ireland then. It was also long before foreign direct investment, à la the big US tech and pharma companies, and shiploads of EU development money, rescued the situation. And the Irish always thought it was their own brilliance that did it! Nothing wrong with a bit of confidence, but probably about 80/20 in favour of big biz plus EU money would be closer to reality! Moving on then, I had a desire to travel a bit anyway. So some chance events led to going to South Africa (SA) to work in the Shell Oil laboratories in 1976, if I remember right. Informed wisdom at the time was it should be maybe five years or so before SA descends into mayhem due to the apartheid situation. That timescale suited fine as an opportunity to travel to some interesting faraway places, get some work experience, and return to take up employment closer to familiar territory. That was the plan.
Stories within stories, but avoiding too much sidetracking, I ended up staying in SA a long time. It was an interesting place to be then. For example, South Africa had lots of big gold mines. I remember one time the Government gave everyone a 3-month income tax holiday because the gold price had gone screaming up past $800 per ounce and they didn’t need the tax money! Nice! Different story now. Worked in the labs at Shell Oil for a few years and then moved on to working in other technical, and technical sales and middle management roles until re-emigration from SA in the early 1990’s. In fact the same year Nelson Mandela was released from prison on Robben Island. A good idea or not to stay so long is a debate for another day.
Economic sanctions due to the apartheid situation had been strangling SA for some years and most of the companies I worked at have since disappeared. But those years were an opportunity to visit interesting places and do many interesting things as well as accumulate an HonoursBCom from the University of South Africa, which I really enjoyed.
On return, Ireland still proved to be in the employment doldrums back in the early ‘90’s. Hence I ended up working in the UK for more than a decade. Once again in technical sales and marketing middle management roles, and again with Shell Oil, in Manchester this time, for a couple of years. Later moving on to a similar role at a specialty manufacturing company on Merseyside.
That UK company was acquired by the German Evonik conglomerate. They installed their own top management and soon afterwards the entire UK business was moved to one of their main sites in Belgium. Disruption aside, it just made business sense. That and other circumstances provided an opportunity to have another bash at returning to Ireland in about 2004.
I had always had a strong interest in finance, and had been an active small investor on the Johannesburg and London Stock Exchanges. Early on after returning to Ireland this led to an unexpected but interesting opportunity in a financial services brokerage.
Some years passed as a financial consultant. I could write books about that particular experience and, while interesting and worthwhile, it was clear from early days there that for me it was going to be a shorter-term proposition. As an aside to this, my keen interest in computing and digital technology goes as far back as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Apple IIe and the original IBM PC. Not many will remember those early PC years and Bill Gates as a scrawny youth, but it all had a role in the journey!
This led to quite a few years of contract work on the commercial side of the start-up and early growth phases in the digital technology space in Dublin, Ireland. And it coincided with initial thoughts about the ‘when and where’ of the years subsequent to the traditional ‘9 to 5’ routine. It was an interesting time to observe the state of play in the digital technology space, outside of tech giants like Google, Apple, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. in Ireland. Any venture capitalist can confirm, and putting it this way – dynamic and exciting as it may be, survival and viability rates in the digital technology startup space aren’t stellar. I remember paychecks bouncing. It wouldn’t attract the attention of long-term value investors like Joel Greenblatt or Charlie Munger, notwithstanding the occasional unicorn. But explaining a little further about Portugal before moving on.
More than 10 years ago now I spent a 2-week holiday walking a significant section of the Spanish Camino. Truly memorable experience and met many wonderful people from all over the world. One of those people (a very important person as it turned out, as we’ve been life partners for a long time now) spoke highly of Porto and suggested I visit there. I did, spent a lot of time getting to know northern Portugal over subsequent years, loved the place, the people, the quality of life. From that we decided this was likely where we would spend our Golden Years, which is how it turned out. From which, back to the main story again.
Apart from being an avid computer user for years, my interests also encompassed coding, the hardware and operating system side of computing, web technology and involved a number of certificate and post grad diploma qualifications. Most of my coding experience is in Python and when I was winding down from full time employment fairly recently I completed a UK National Cyber Security Centre accredited MSc in cyber security through Edinburgh Napier University. Not something to take on lightly but a lot of insight into the cyber security world, and satisfying to accomplish. For those who meet the requisite computing entry criteria, I would recommend it as a great follow-on for furthering computing, network and cyber security knowledge and skills. But why tackle something like an advanced degree in Cyber Security would be a fair question.
Simple really. I was between contracts a few years before exiting the normal 9 to 5 hamster wheel. During that interlude and out of interest I took up a postgrad diploma program in computer science at the National College of Ireland, Dublin (NCI). The speciality was cyber security. That got down into the weeds of technical computing quite a bit and was very interesting. But it was a shortish program and NCI didn’t have a particularly noteworthy cyber pedigree at the time. Later, I wanted to see if I could really hack it with a top Masters degree program in cyber security. Other reasons were it might provide some additional contract work opportunities, and it turned out to be a great focus during the COVID-19 lockdowns. So I enrolled with Edinburgh Napier University for their MSc in Advanced Security & Digital Forensics by distance learning. It is one of a handful of Masters degrees in cyber security accredited by the UK National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), one of the world’s foremost Governmental cyber security institutions. The UK NCSC was spun out from the UK GCHQ (aka The Doughnut – UK spies!) some years back, and is not related to the fledgling Irish institution of the same name.
Achieving the MSc in cyber was satisfying, and enhanced by the fact my dissertation (relating to machine learning and natural language processing in detection of email phishing) was awarded a distinction. Tons of python coding was involved. To me it all helped confirm, contrary to the popular notion, we don’t lose our edge as the years progress. We can keep on sharpening the axe if we so choose. The only question is whether we still have the will! So ‘ora bem!’, as they would say in Portuguese!
My work-related site / blog of late about cyber security has now been ‘decommissioned’ since things have moved on to, let’s say, more ‘casual’ matters. In the past I have also set up and run blogs on financial service matters from a professional standpoint, and hiking and the outdoors as a leisure activity.
We feel very fortunate and thankful for where things are at. There’s also the interesting challenge of working on conversational fluency in Portuguese (not an easy language, for me at any rate!). Then, working on some personal python, web technology and other computing projects. And maybe most important, both of us enjoying an active outdoor lifestyle, particularly hiking and cycling in this wonderful part of the world. Marvelous seafood and wines – best coffee ever too!
If anyone happens to want to know, my LinkedIn profile is here.
That’s just up until now. The journey continues from here – for sure there will be lots more…