If it matters…
Right now, early-2024, I’m sitting at my desk within a few hundred metres of, and overlooking, the wild Atlantic Ocean. Unhurried, safe, and beautiful northern Portugal. Tops in every important way for us.
How and why here?
Northern Portugal has always stood out as a preferred location for our post-9-to-5 years, if it proved possible. We have visited quite frequently, looked around at various locations, did quite a bit of hiking in the area. It ticked all the boxes, and then some – actually, and then a lot.
Having lived and worked for long periods in three countries up to that point, it didn’t take long to see that northern Portugal offered the best all-around quality of life by far than anywhere hitherto. The choice was easy, and the circumstances more fortunate that I had ever dared hope.
For me, present and future perspectives are what it’s all about, rather than the past. So we could wrap up the bio at this point without losing anything important. But, for anyone with the patience or time to kill, let’s skim through a few points in the lead-up to life in northern Portugal.
Probably a good place to start is to say whatever one’s idea of a ‘normal’, ‘standard’, or ‘off-the-peg’ life would be, mine was anything but. Not that I planned or particularly wished it that way – it’s just how things unfolded. Some of which we have a degree of influence over. Others, we think we do. Most, we don’t. Fact.
Earliest memories go back to my roots in rural southern Ireland, and boarding school from about age 12. In rural Ireland back then, even a full high school education and any significant career guidance (other than perhaps a cursory ‘what do you want to be’?) was more the exception than the rule. Besides maybe ‘tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor’ I wouldn’t even have had any idea what the possible options might have been! We had a fantastic local character named Dan Byrne who as kids we all loved – to us he was a kind of gentle giant, big, happy, red-faced guy always with beardy jowls. He was a ‘forestryman’, whatever exactly that entailed, it might have been planting sapling trees, and whoever his actual employer was. Some public sector department or County Council body probably, not that anyone knew much about that. Everything was a mystery back then and only mentioned with hushed reverence in 2, 3 or 4-letter words and knowing nods by ‘them in-the-know’. So I remember when I was a kid, I wanted to be a ‘forestryman’ like Dan!
Back then, the 60’s, tradition ruled. Little changed over long periods. After all, it had only been maybe two generations since marriages were ‘arranged’. In fact I clearly remember some of the old ducks around the rural neighbourhood suggesting who might make a ‘good wife’. Who knows, but it didn’t seem that great an idea anyway. If one was an heir apparent to a big property, or wealth of some kind, there were a lot of hooks in the water one could get caught on. But that wasn’t me, no ‘old money’, rich aunties, uncles, etc. here. Had that been the case, the next normal step in Irish tradition of then would have been to produce as much offspring as physiologically possible, cheered on by the church! Some local families could have fielded a football team, including a reserve bench! Contraceptives were illegal in Ireland then, and several decades away from pharmacy shelves. Some strange ideas persist, even now.
It’s fascinating to reflect back – and even today one can hear the echoes, see the shadows, of mores, customs, and traditions that today might puzzle a bit.
High school, à la boarding school, and college came and went. Hopefully boarding school has changed for the better. But there was the occasional bright spot in the journey. Not many though. The time arrived to think about a job.
For centuries, and up to about the late 90’s, employment opportunities in Ireland were meagre at best. Hence the main reason about twice the population of Ireland scattered about the globe claim to be Irish. It was also long before foreign direct investment – specifically the big US tech and pharma companies, and shiploads of EU development money, put Ireland on the map economically.
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. 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.
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 US$800 per ounce. They were awash with US$ and didn’t need the tax money! Nice! Very different story now, with China essentially in the role of financier and puppetmaster.
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 I decided to re-emigrate from SA in the early 1990’s. In the latter years in SA I was involved more in the business side of things than pure technical. During those years I took the useful and enjoyable opportunity to add an Honours business degree from the University of South Africa to the BSc (Natural Sciences) from TU Dublin.
On return from SA in ’93, Ireland still proved to be in the employment doldrums. Hence I ended up working in the UK for more than a decade. Once again with Shell Oil, in technical sales and marketing middle management roles, 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 a couple of years later the entire UK business was closed and operations moved to one of their main sites in St Niklaas, Belgium. Disruption aside, it just made business sense. That and other welcome 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. Soon after returning to Ireland this led to an unexpected but interesting opportunity in a financial services brokerage.
Some years passed as a financial consultant. While interesting and worthwhile, it was clear from early days at that brokerage that for me it was going to be a short term proposition. It turned out to be longer than I had expected – years instead of months. 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 mega-rich 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 the late great 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.
Contracting in the start-up space provided some gaps which gave me the opportunity to bulk up on a few formal computing qualifications. This ultimately led to a UK National Cyber Security Centre accredited MSc in cyber security through Edinburgh Napier University. Challenging, not something to take on lightly, but satisfying to accomplish and globally is one of the top Masters programs in cyber. It was also a great focus during the COVID-19 lockdowns. And I think we can take it as evidence we don’t lose our edge as the years progress, unless we allow it to happen out of choice. The only question is whether we still have the will!
And that takes us up to where we are today, more or less.
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!
The journey continues – for sure there will be lots more…
My LinkedIn profile is here.