Many students received their A-Level results during the summer and some of them may have been left disappointed with their results and left reconsidering their next steps.

James Amor – Licenced Air Technologist and Lead Architect for FalconWorks at BAE Systems knows that feeling after failing his own A-Levels. However, he ‘defied the odds’ to become an accomplished engineer. Here James speaks to FINN in the hope of being able to inspire students that feel at a loss.

Tell me about your educational background and the challenges you faced?

I was never the most successful academic – I hated education and I struggled with GCSEs. The A-Level college I went to didn’t offer any courses in Information Technology, so I settled for Chemistry, Biology and English Literature. Although I originally had an offer to study Chemistry at Keele University, I didn’t do well in my A-Levels and had to take a step back to re-evaluate my plans. I had no general direction, but I loved computers and software – and seemed to be quite good at both. After a year’s break working for the NHS, I went to Liverpool John Moores University; I’d finally found exactly what I wanted to do with my future.

How did you feel failing you’re A-Levels?

I completed my A-levels in 1997, with results day being a real turning point in my life. I’d been trying to convince myself that I had a future as an Industrial Chemist – my results disagreed! I was forced to reflect on what I wanted to do career-wise and reconsider the path I wanted to go down. I chose to leave education and got a job working for the NHS.
During the next few months, I realised that when I wasn’t at work, I was always doing something with computers – teaching myself new programming languages, learning how to build them, helping friends with their IT problems. This realisation was a pivotal moment for me; I needed to turn my passion for technology into my career. At the end of my A levels, I would never have thought I’d have made it to where I am now, in the aviation industry. I dread to think where I’d be now if I’d have pursued a career in Chemistry. Everything happens for a reason.

Are A-levels the ‘be all and end all’ to success?

I absolutely loved my time at University – it was exactly what I needed to get myself back on track. However, while higher education can provide a great foundation for your career, it’s certainly not the be all and end all, nor is it the right path for everyone. I currently work with many early-careers engineers and see some absolute superstars coming into the business through alternative routes like our apprenticeships. Personally, looking back, there’s nothing I would have changed in my career path as it got me to where I am today. If you have a passion for what you do then never give up – you’ll get there one way or another, just don’t give up. The aviation industry particularly needs a far greater volumes of engineers than we currently have. In terms of skillsets, we look for potential across the board – and that does not solely come from traditional university backgrounds. We can bring someone on board who is a 70-80% fit, and help them build that last 20-30% organically. Mentoring and coaching is a great way to bring candidates out of their shell and exceed their potential. This part of my role is the most fulfilling, and really gives me a buzz. It’s really rewarding seeing someone who didn’t have the greatest start in life or didn’t have enough confidence to throw themselves into something and watch them flourish and grow.”

What made you interested in the aviation industry?

I spent a lot of my childhood doing woodwork and cabinet making with my Dad, that’s where my love for designing and building things stemmed from. I moved onto software from there – the first system I ever created was programming a computer to ring my Grandparents, so that when they got near the phone it would hang up – so just a bit of fun, but I got in a lot of trouble!
I have always had a massive interest in military aviation; two of my Grandparents were in the RAF, with another being an engineer at Marconi. I grew up close to the British Aerospace site at Lostock (now MBDA), and I was a Cadet in the Air Training Corps. My ambitions were clear – I either wanted to fly military aircraft, or work on them…Sadly my eyesight wasn’t good enough to be a Pilot, but I think I’ve made a better engineer than a Pilot!

Can you tell me about your climb up the ladder at BAE Systems?

I applied to BAE Systems straight out of university and have been here ever since! I started at our Christchurch site working in the Land sector, before moving to the Air Sector just over 20 years ago. That’s one of the unique opportunities that BAE Systems offers – you can move around the business, even around the world, and try new things. I’ve been really lucky to have been in a range of roles in that time – from Graduate Software Engineer, System Design Lead, Systems Architect, and all the way up to Lead Architect and Integrator and Licensed Air Technologist. I’ve worked in the UK, Germany, Italy and Australia. My time at BAE has been incredibly varied, and I’m very grateful for that.

What does your role involve now?

My role as a Licensed Technologist is to ensure our technology planning meets the future needs of the business and to manage the roadmap for new and emerging technologies.
This involves understanding what technologies inside and outside defence will help us meet our capability requirements as a business. I look across the technology arena for concepts that could be viable for the military industry – everything in the medical, gaming, automotive, civil aviation, and financial sectors, and ask “what are they doing with cutting-edge technologies that we could exploit and evolve?”
We also lead development of cutting-edge technologies ourselves, and are always keeping tabs on what the next big thing is, and asking ourselves if we need to be investing in these technologies and seeking to better understand them from a defence and security point of view. The FalconWorks mantra is ‘what comes after next?’
We maintain capability roadmaps covering business needs over the next 5, 10, or 20 years – essentially mapping out where we need to be, and what steps we need to take to evolve and mature our capability in the meantime to get there.
Essentially, our clients, or the wider business, come to us with a challenge, or a jigsaw, and we need to piece it together and find a solution. We identify and integrate the various technological capabilities we have – whether it’s established technologies, or innovative ideas showcased just a month ago – and stitch them together to not only meet the capability expectations but pre-empt the future direction of what they may ask for next. We also have a virtual ‘shelf’ of fantastic ideas and concepts ready to be used. It’s my job as a Licensed Technologist to continually restock that shelf, so that when we are set a challenge that we don’t have an answer to, we have can look to our existing innovations and concepts for inspiration.

How does BAE Systems support the future generation?

BAE Systems takes investment into future generations and early career opportunities very seriously. In fact, BAE Systems invests approximately £100m in education, skills and early careers activities in the UK annually and currently has almost 4,300 apprentices and graduates in training across its UK businesses, equivalent to more than 10% of its 35,000 strong UK workforce. There are a range of roles catered to different backgrounds and experience. Requirements for graduate or apprenticeship roles vary, but across the board having a passion for technology is a must!

Is there an increase in females working in the industry?

Although the industry has traditionally been male dominated, things are certainly changing. Personally, I work with some fabulous female colleagues, and it’s great to see their numbers increasing. BAE Systems are huge advocates of levelling out that imbalance, and always seek to empower and advocate for women in engineering and aviation. Diversity is treated as a priority when building our workforce. It’s great to see more women entering the industry each year, and bringing diversity of skills, perspective, and backgrounds with them – something that STEM careers, and BAE Systems, thrives on. There are some brilliant female engineers in my team; they are incredible at what they do and bring a lot to the table – hopefully they inspire more females to enter the industry.

I understand you are a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and an award nominee for a flight safety innovation for the RAF. How does this make you feel?

I’m incredibly proud of my accomplishments, and I absolutely love what I do. In fact, I don’t see what I do as work. As a hobbyist, I apply the same passions at home too. I make sequenced Christmas lights, Remembrance Day displays, and Halloween displays with automated candy dispensers – everything has embedded computing.
To paraphrase Top Gun, “Military aviation isn’t what I do, it’s what I am!”
Given I work in such emerging technologies, you never quite know when the next big disrupter is going to emerge, which keeps things really exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing where else my time at BAE Systems will take me.

What advice would you give a student today that is experiencing what you did when studying your A-Levels?

In my career to date, not once has ‘Plan A’ worked out! It’s about taking a step back and working out how you can get around it, adapt, and fix it. So, don’t be put off if you don’t get exactly what you want result and career wise – learn everything you can from the opportunities you do have, and channel it into what you do next.I’d recommend you find what you love, and who you are; do that as a job, and you’ll never work a day in your life! Be true to yourself – follow a path that you know will motivate you and bring true job satisfaction. Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Throughout your career you’ll be challenged, and that’s ok, but make sure you look after yourself throughout the process.

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