A tale of two clients.

Posted on March 21, 2014. Filed under: Education | Tags: , , , |

I have different types of clients. I provide services to all of them.

For some, I am registered as a supplier, we agree a fee, I do the work to the agreed specification (or better), I submit an invoice, and they usually pay me within 30 days.

For others, I am asked to do some work, we agree a fee (usually expenses only as it is an education or CPD-related activity and I consider myself a responsible professional who is willing to share knowledge and experience), I do the work, I submit a claim form and I wait. And I wait. And I wait. And I ask them what’s going on. Then they find another form that I need to fill in, so I do that and submit it. And I wait and wait and wait while they drag their heels and spend countless hours impersonating the Vogon civil service.

Why the different treatment ? Am I not providing a service, at an agreed price, to both organisations ? Do I not provide that service ?

Well, the second entity doesn’t consider that we have a commercial arrangement. It’s a university, in fact just about every university I’ve given a guest lecture for in recent years, and the expenses systems they operate.

I’m tired of that situation. Practically every time I give a guest lecture, I end up giving an interest-free loan to an organisation that isn’t even paying a nominal fee for my services.

I think I’ve finally started to understand the underlying problem though. Universities do not operate in the commercial world. They pretend they do. They have “business plans” and teams dedicated to “business engagement” and “innovation”, but the reality is that they are simply just trying to demonstrate that they are hitting political targets better than the other Universities. They don’t actually have to achieve anything, they just have to be less terrible than the others and tick the right boxes for the current manifesto promises.

The relentless pursuit of handouts (grants) and sausage-machine degree awarding has created a bunch of institutions that, frankly, no longer really care about what they can do for society. All they want to know is how much they can extract from society in order to continue to exist in their own little indifferent bubbles.

Please note, by the way, I’m talking about the institutional level. At the actual level of the people there are many good and caring staff who do want to make a difference – I used to be one of them – but they are hobbled by the hordes of self-serving administrators whose only aim is to expand their own empires and preserve their own pensions.

Time for a shake-up I say, let’s change the way we measure success in our HE establishments. Let’s stop looking at how much they produce and let’s start looking at what real effect they have. Forget impact ratings on journals, and counts of graduate destinations – let’s look at what they really produce – where’s the change for good ?

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Journeys

Posted on August 12, 2013. Filed under: life, motoring | Tags: , , , , , , |

I spent a lot of time on the road last week, probably more than was good for me, but it led to a small moment of clarity.

On Friday, I was trying to get home from Brighton. That involved, notionally, driving around the M25 and then up the M1 to the north-east of England. There are other routes, but when you’ve committed to meeting someone part-way up the M1, it pretty much locks you into that. (And yes, I know that trying to drive away from London on a Friday is always a bad idea because all those who work there do exactly the same).

As expected, within a few minutes of joining the M25, it was gridlocked. Average speed was about 5 mph, it seemed. I couldn’t do anything except sit in the jam, edging forward little by little, watching my ETA increase until, eventually, after an hour-long delay, the jam magically cleared in front of me and allowed me to get off the M25 onto the M1 and to my meeting.

After the meeting, I rejoined the M1 – to see another jam. Now, I had a choice – I could sit in the jam and hope it cleared, I could get out the maps and plan another route, or I could drive in vaguely the right direction to find another good road north and hope that the SatNav would work out what I was up to.

I chose the third option. I had no need to stick to a planned route any more. I just wanted to get on the move and feel like I was making progress towards my destination.

The revelation – a lot of the time, this is how I run my business. I don’t like to have plans that are too well-formed. I need to keep some flexibility because things change, usually unexpectedly and in interesting ways.

I like to feel like I’m making progress, even if it’s not in the way I had planned. I do start with an outline plan, and I always know what my goals are, but exactly how I achieve them is quite loosely defined. It works for me, but it causes problems too.

Right now, I’m stuck on a couple of projects because I made two mistakes. Firstly, I decided to use a large organisation as a sub-contractor and secondly, I trusted them to deliver their contracts on time.

The organisation is so large, and so beset with a mindset that tells it that all risks can be managed, that it’s got stuck in drawing up the contracts. It simply can’t cope with a situation which is flexible and which requires elements of doubt and uncertainty to be accepted.

Unfortunately for that organisation, I’m preparing to take a different route – I can see a promising little side-road up ahead and it looks interesting.

They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Finishing that journey means that you have to keep moving, no matter what obstacles get in your way.

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Dear Sir/Madam – I’m looking for a placement

Posted on March 28, 2013. Filed under: Education | Tags: , , , , , |

Dear student

Thankyou for your email. Unfortunately we are not in a position to offer placements at the moment, but may be able to offer some advice which will help you secure one with one of the larger firms (assuming you read past this paragraph).

Firstly, when sending emails such as this, it is a good idea to use your official University email address. Hotmail/Yahoo/Googlemail looks unprofessional and regularly diverts straight to the spam bin.

Secondly, try finding out who you are writing to and direct your email to them in person. My details are not hard to find on our website, but you used our general enquiry address. Again, this looks unprofessional and suggests you are mailbombing rather than being selective in your applications.

Thirdly, you’ve told me what you want – but how can you help me ? or anyone else you contact ? What can you add to the organisation ? Why do we need you ? How much do you know about us ? (give me a clue that you’ve done some research and particularly want to work for me, not just any old firm).

Fourthly, tell the person reading your email something about the course, what your interests are and what your prospects are. At the moment, all I see is that you have to do a placement, not that you *want* a placement.

Finally, rather than making me open your CV, tell the reader a bit more about yourself – make them want to read your CV. Remember you have just as long as it takes for someone to hit “delete” to make a good impression. Most of us receive several of these a week – you need to stand out. You haven’t even told me which University you are studying at so I can’t evaluate you without opening an attachment which might contain malware.

I wish you well in your search for a placement, and hope you will accept these suggestions in the spirit in which they are offered.

Angus Marshall, CEO and ex-academic (who used to find placements for his own students rather than making them do it themselves).

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Ideas beginning to sprout

Posted on September 15, 2010. Filed under: Education, forensic | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Last week, I was in Brussels for the launch of the latest Framework Programme 7 security call. In amongst all the usual work proposals for activities on counter-terrorism, border controls, communications and collaboration, there are a couple of items with the “F” word in them. (calm down Mr. Ramsay – I mean Forensic, of course).

They are “Digital Forensic Capability” and “Advanced Forensic Framework”. Both topics call for exploration of methods to improve the perceived reliability of evidence, demonstrate competence of scientists and allow for greater portability of evidence from one jurisdiction to another.

As I read through the topic summaries, it struck me that forensic science may not be in quite the poor state that they seem to imply. Generally, there is an acceptance that ISO17020 & ISO17025 standards can be applied to crime scene & forensic science (through the addition of intrepetive guidance documents such as ILAC G19) and most good conventional labs are already accredited to those standards.

In England we have the Code of Conduct being produce by the Forensic Science Regulator, which serves as further clarification and it looks like the the ISO SC27 group’s work on Digital Forensic Standards (More on that when I get back from Berlin next month) may well produce something very concrete for digital forensics in the next year or two.

However, those deal with the short to medium term situation. These projects are an opportunity for the forensic science community to come together to share experiences across disciplines, involving the litigators and the investigators too, to look to the future and agree frameworks for validation of future methods. They’re also a great chance for use to take a step back and look more closely at how we train & educate our scientists, investigators and legal representatives  to see if we can agree some common minimum standards which will allow evidence & professionals to move more freely around Europe, if not the world. If we can reach agreement, we can reduce time and cost wasted in dealing with material which should either never exist, or is completely non-contentious.

Best of all, it’s a requirement that any project proposals must involve several countries and the very nature of these projects means that they will be multi-disciplinary too. Even if we don’t get the money (I have two outlines circulating for comments already – email me if you would like to get involved), there are some great opportunities to establish new partnerships just through the bidding process.

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PhDs

Posted on October 21, 2009. Filed under: All, Education | Tags: , , |

Over the years I’ve had a number of enquiries about becoming a PhD student within my fledgling research group (when I had one). Every single one of them seemed to think that a) I had plenty of topics for them to work on and b) I had lots of money to fund them.

Let’s get a couple of things straight – in the UK, very few universities or other research organisations have funding for PhD research unless it is associated with an established high profile programme with external funding allocated to it. The majority of PhD students are, therefore, financed by themselves, their employers or their governments.

This also means that, although the potential supervisor (Director of Studies in PhD-speak) might have a lot of good ideas it is morally and ethically dubious for him or her to attempt to dictate the topic to the student. A secondary issue is that it is very difficult to judge the ability of a potential PhD student from just a CV and a few lines of references. For this reason, most responsible DoSes will ask the applicant to come up with a research proposal – usually of one or two pages – to allow them to assess the candidates suitability. They should also ask the crucial question “who’s paying? ” (strangely enough, once this question is asked about 75% of applicants give up – makes you wonder what the motivation was really ? )

The proposals are quite informative – some are just page after page of material ripped from the ‘net (do you think we really don’t know the sources better than you do ? ) and go straight into the bin whilst muttering the word “plagiarism” again. Others read more like the sort of essay one would expect from a school pupil. Poorly referenced, ill-thought out and full of journalistic tone and opinion. The good ones, though few and far between, are a joy to read. They contain a properly considered argument explaining what the general research area is, have an indication of what the critical research questions might be (these haunt PhD candidates for the rest of their lives…) and how they might be answered. There will be proper references to published recent papers on the subject (not just a list of books and webpages).

So – if you’re thinking of applying for a PhD – prepare first – please don’t just send an e-mail asking if there are any PhD place – tell the potential DoS what you want to do and it’s going to be paid for – that might get you to the next stage – the interview. At that – there will be one crucial question : “Why do you want a PhD ? ” – and there is a right answer to that – but I’m not going to give away all the secrets now.

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    About

    This is the weblog of Angus M. Marshall, forensic scientist, author of Digital Forensics : digital evidence in criminal investigations and MD at n-gate ltd.

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