5±1/115: The NCE Graduate Awards
“Now this is the story all about how,
My life got flipped (turned upside down).
And I’d like to take a minute just sit right there,
I’ll tell you how I didn’t become NCE Graduate of the Year…”
The Entry Form
I think I’ll forever speculate whether, had I said no to either of those questions, I would never have been in the running.
You have to put yourself up for the NCE Graduate Award; I guess they assume you’ll have somewhat of an inclining if you are the greatest graduate of all time. I didn’t- initially dismissing it, having compared the previous winners tendency to bring peace to the world through the medium of dynamic structures against my tendency not to. Once the NCE actually started posting letters trying to cajole people into signing-up, however, I reasoned that no one else was entering, so I’d stand a good chance if I did.
Once I’d read the ‘debate’ topic: “engineering in 40 years“, I ended up spending a restless night dictating dystopian futures in my head, which I later got down on paper and published (in what would turn out to be my most successful) blog post. The rest of the form focused on engineering achievements. I spent most of it trying to make my (preferred) small and intricate jobs sound like the multimillion-worth projects all the previous winners had, apparently, single-handedly initiated.
I finished my entry form twenty minutes before the midnight deadline, with flashbacks to my University days- hurriedly removing the line about “fantastic time management” for fear of being struck down by lightning. The next week I learned that most of the people I knew had entered, and so I dismissed my chances of getting anywhere; clearly my faith on the numbers game was misplaced.
I found out I had gotten somewhere when the NCE called me, a week before the announcement, to ask: “Are you free on the 9th of November and 7th of December?”. I think I’ll forever speculate whether, had I said no to either of those questions, I would never have been in the running. It’s a testament to how surprised I was to be on the short-list that my response was “yay”, forcing a kind reply: “yes, yay indeed”.
The requirement for a picture of me on site, “doing something meaningful” was even more bewildering.
Getting somewhere in the NCE Graduate of the Year Awards leads to a second, and unexpected task. You have to produce photos of yourself generally succeeding in life. The initial phone conversation results in a list being drawn up of suitable photos to provide as a background to the short précis given at the award ceremony. This would prove to be significantly harder than actually entering.
The first photo, which has to be produced immediately, is a mug-shot of you, in hi-vis, looking happy at the camera. As it turns out smiling on demand isn’t in my skill set; two hours later I had produced a hand-full of pictures that, at least, would not cause small children to cry. When the announcement was made and the photos weren’t included, I had assumed my offering was tragic enough to discourage the whole exercise. A month later, however, a message on Facebook alerted me to their publication; and I looked in envious indignation at the one professional shot, free of the obligatory hard-hat, that a fellow nominee had gotten away with.
It turns out that my parents have almost no photographs of me achieving anything as a youth; and photos of me playing the piano are especially absent. If you have ever been to a school concert, you can understand why you wouldn’t want to relive it. The only option was to fake it; with guidance from the NCE to do something “wearing a tux and bow-tie”. I dismissed the idea, deciding that surreptitiously photographing myself in a piano shop was penance enough, without adding dinner jackets to the occasion.
The requirement for a picture of me on site, “doing something meaningful” was even more bewildering- especially because, as any contractor will tell you: consultants do very little meaningful activities on site. As a reasonably well-balanced individual I do not regularly photograph myself working (it’s pretty much one of the qualifications), and so I will forever be in debt to Tom Morgan (of Skanska fame), who didn’t even crack a joke as I pretended to measure out the point of a piling rig, the distance between two levelling pins, and looked at a historic drawing of a set of arches directly behind me.
The final step of the competition is to present yourself with a 15 minute speech to the judges on why you should be the NCE Graduate of the Year, and then answer questions; like a beauty pageant without the talent section. Inspired by the (somewhat) mock-disappointment at my short-listing of my Project Engineer; I wrote my speech on the importance of failure. Therefore the night before was spent posing rhetorical questions to the mirror and mumbling to myself while cooking.
Determined that hitherto unprecedented natural disasters would befall the public transport network, I left with sufficient time to write a short novel. Thus I arrived at Waterloo an hour and a half before I could legitimately arrive early to the interview. To pass the time I practised my speech, initially muttering along and finally working up to proclaiming it to the Southbank. I did get 10p, and although the lady may well have just dropped it, I’d like to think of it as a busking donation.
When I arrived, still early, I found out that the panel had assembled with surprising efficiency, and I would luckily(?!) get to go straight on in. The population of a small US town (there were 18 judges) had apparently arrived to hear my speech. I gave myself some breathing space by rolling up my sleeves, and stared at the blank cue-cards I had brought with me, every time I needed to legitimise a pause.
Most of the questions focused on my ‘quirky’ presentational style. Like a spouse, three days after loosing the argument- I realised exactly what I should have said in response:
“aren’t we always telling people how creative our career is?”
“aren’t we always telling people how creative our career is?”
The whole affair ended with a series of photos, with a professional photographer, who spent most of his time attempting to rotate my body 90o from my head. I’m guessing this made me look more dynamic; and not like an extra from an ABBA video.
Bolstered by a fairly positive response, I returned home and decided to check out the competition. My heart sank. Everything I had joked about was there, one was the placement manager for EWB and literally spent her time saving the world, another had won enough awards to devote a library of trophy cabinets to; it was clear I wasn’t going to win. Luckily, however, I had used the trip to justify the purchase of chocolate covered coffee beans (which are pretty much worth their weight in gold), and I was able to drown any feelings of failing with a coma of gluttony.
The Phone Interview
The most incredulous moment came when it became clear he didn’t know what the Death Star was.
The week before the big day, you get a phone interview. The primary purpose of which is to fill the space next to the aforementioned dynamic pictures. It’s odd being interviewed; hearing my sentences of dull self-deprivation repeated back as inspirational statements. Discussing what projects I had been involved with, and deciding those that counted as interesting on paper; I spend a lot of it vehemently wishing that no-one I knew would read it.
“I’m going to call you a self-professed computer geek, or nerd; I don’t want it to be an insult- what do you prefer?” he asked. I found myself wondering how someone else can declare your own self-proclamations. I don’t think I’ve ever called myself a geek, or a nerd, just disappointed that so few people I know have bothered to learn anything about the box they spend most of their working day talking to. “Geek”, I said, having tested Google for the most hits against “[x] are sexy.” The next day I would send an e-mail suggesting that ‘whizz’ which, while still being playground slang, would at least be bearable to have quoted back at me; there was no reply.
Being Brunel was saved for last, and the determination was to find the more ‘fun’ articles. Frankly, however, the most incredulous moment came when it became clear he didn’t know what the Death Star was. I take it as read that most people I know, know what the Death Star is; and explaining it only helped to fuel my apparently self-proclaimed geekiness.
The Big Day
It’s not that the talk was bad, it’s just a disappointment that we had to farm-in talent to present the awards
The big day comes, and I put on a the new suit that I have finally been persuaded to buy (yielding to the persecution of my much loved ‘machine washable’ combo). Between coffee beans, suits and the hosting costs of the website that, probably, got me here; it occurs I’m going to make a loss- still, it’s been an experience!
I put on my 7-Highly-Effective-Habbits-of-Dispondent-Businessmen face and gave networking a go. It is disappointing to learn that all your rivals are, in fact, fantastic, interesting and highly relatable individuals who have simply just achieved more that you have in life. This was especially true of the winner, who had managed to get a butterfly named after him; honestly, there’s no competing.
We had a number of guest speakers, including Sir John Armitt (who is inspirational enough to have his own Wikipedia entry). The awards, however, were given by Strictly Come Dancing winner Chris Hollins. I had already got a bet going with myself about which family member would turn out to provide a link to Civil Engineering, and was disappointed to learn that it was his Farther in Law, rather that his Granddad; as I had gambled. It’s not that the talk was bad, it’s just a disappointment that we had to farm-in talent to present the awards, when we had the man who delivered the Olympics in the room.
Finally the winners were announced; and I’ll let everyone else tell you where they got, but I was ‘Highly Commended’, which can be thought of as Bronze; although I’m £350 for the better and I finally have something to write at the beginning of my CV. The whole event ended with more damn photos; including a sketchy encounter with a step ladder in the library in the afternoon (which sounds like the call-card of a Cluedo killer…).
A few drinks later, a promise to meet up (maybe even a few guest posts…), and some chocolate coated recapitulation on the train home.
I looked at my kingdom, I was finally there- Avoiding my throne as NCE Graduate of the Year.