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Getting Ahead In... Digital Advertising & Technology

In our next Getting Ahead In… feature, learn how Ben Doran used his degree in Computer Science to establish a successful career combining programming and advertising.

Ben DoranTell me a bit about what you do as Head of Technology at Lowe Profero.

It's a big role with lots of different elements to the job. Essentially I am the technical face of the agency. Lowe Profero builds everything from campaigns to global platforms, for both big and small enterprises, so this is a vast and varied area.

In terms of the technical delivery, I am responsible for making decisions about how we code and the standards and technology that we use. I make sure that the right technical decisions are being made for our clients, and these are married up to their business and technical goals.

The other part of my job involves creative technology and ensuring that we at the forefront of the latest trends, trying to anticipate which patterns are emerging in the industry, and how we merge big IT and technical thinking with the excellent creative force we have.

"I like the challenge of delivering at the bleeding edge of technology to tight deadlines."

What are the biggest challenges that you've faced so far in your career? How did you overcome these?

The big challenge in this industry has probably been the transition from traditional advertising to digital advertising, where technology is coming into it so much more. The place of technology in the ideas landscape is something that when I first started wasn't really taken as seriously.

It's only in the last few years that creative technology has become a distinct discipline. Technology is now taken much more seriously and is being brought into the ideas process, helping shape ideas and campaigns as opposed to being a tool used to realise ideas.

Learning to work with different people with different skillsets was also difficult at the beginning. Creating solutions for brands demands working with a variety of people, while traditionally technology has always been a very introverted profession. As an industry it is certainly changing, and moving towards working more openly and collaboratively.

Ben DoranWhat drew you to your industry? What do you find especially fulfilling about it?

I was always drawn to technology and wanted to be a programmer or work with technology in some fashion, so I've pretty much resolutely followed that career path. Professionally I started off as a developer and then discovered advertising completely by accident.

I like the challenge of delivering at the bleeding edge of technology to tight deadlines. Initially that's what drew me into advertising, but I stayed because I get to make meaningful products for brands I love. We get to see so much in our business, we get to create products from scratch and build campaigns that can help build brands.

It's great to see such tangible benefits for the customer. When you're working for a single software company you can learn a lot, but you tend to be working on a project for a long period so you don't see any tangible results for a while, if ever.

In advertising, you're always just onto the next thing. Our business is much more fast-paced and diverse, and it's great to be there for the beginning of a project, and be able to see it through to completion.

Do you have any particular career highlights or projects that you've particularly enjoyed working on?

I get to work on a lot of different projects, which is amazing!

One of the earlier projects I worked on was "Nokia Vine", which was really interesting. That project was very much baptism by fire for me. I was new to the industry and the ambition and drive in the team was high, the project was a great success and received several awards, so was an amazing experience.

More recently we (at Lowe Profero) built a Facebook Application called "Pass the Parcel", as part of Marks & Spencer's 2013 Christmas campaign. This was great as we sat down and came up with a specific way of building the app so that it could expand really quickly and could be used by large numbers of people if the campaign went as viral as we hoped. It went exactly as we planned, we got 1 million players in less than 72 hours and the campaign remained stable and robust. So all that planning really paid off, and it was a good test of our skills to build something robust at scale.

What are the key skills that you think have been crucial to your career?

A lot of the skills you need are around programming, so understanding how you organise software as well as the systems and coding, which are all very academic skills. Oftentimes theoretical programming skills tend to get washed over nowadays because a lot of people come into this industry from other areas, but a degree in computer science really gives you an edge.  The principles I learnt are used in small to large-scale projects, so my degree has always been helpful to me in that respect.

"I recently interviewed a graduate from Middlesex who studied under the same lecturer [as I did], which meant that I knew exactly what kind of programmer that person would be."

Having a bit of a hacker mentality also helps – the sort of mentality that means you want to try all sorts of things out. That core foundation of skills, and being open to learn really helped me adapt and progress quickly.

Communication is another fundamental skill in my job, because part of what I do is explain things that are really technical to people who don't know as much about technology. The ability to be able to explain something that's complex in a way that everyone understands is therefore vital as your audience won't always be technical. I've found being a geek that can talk to people has always helped me out.

What made you choose Middlesex?

One of the reasons I chose Middlesex was because it was one of the only universities at the time that had a good games programming course. I wanted to get into gaming development, not gaming design, so this was a key criteria when looking at universities. I didn't actually end up working in that industry, but I wanted somewhere that taught the real basic skills behind building games. Graphics is a tough area and I learnt it well there!

Ben DoranHow do you think your course has contributed to your career? What did you enjoy about it or think was particularly good?

It's contributed in a lot of ways. I was one of those people in school who thought they knew everything about programming, because I had such an interest in the topic before I went to University. What I learned at Middlesex was how to do it properly, from building big applications and organising data in the correct way, to efficient coding, good and bad user experiences and ethical coding. The data structures and algorithms that you're taught are invaluable, as these are particularly hard principles of programming. Even though I've learned a lot since I've been working in this industry, knowing how to do things properly from the start has really helped me. I've always carried that broad understanding of the principles through all my work, and they still apply.

Having a strict programming theory lecturer was key for me. Dr Carl Evans was one lecturer I remember particularly fondly; he made sure everything was right. He taught the key principles of data structure in such a good way. I recently interviewed a graduate from Middlesex who had studied under the same lecturer, which meant that I knew exactly what kind of programmer that person would be.

What advice would you give to someone hoping to excel in your industry?

The key thing to remember is that if you're in university, pay attention! Often during your education you think you're learning things that will never actually be useful later in life, but they really are. At the moment those ideas seem like unnecessary theory, but they do matter. So pay attention to the basics and the principles.

Advertising is about being open and collaborative and working with people from other disciplines. Think about other industries – look at the world of art and design and see what's happening in those spaces. Have a broader knowledge of the world around you. There are lots of different industries working with technology now, even beauty and fashion, so try and be broader than just programming, technology spans all parts of society, so stay expansive.

Challenge yourself. If you find your job easy or you get bored then you've got to do something about it, whether it's through taking on more work, seeking more responsibilities or even finding a new job altogether. Some people spend years in the same job, then when they leave they realise that people at their level are much younger than they are, as they haven't kept moving. If you become an expert in one technology and then just sit there then you'll find it hard to progress, and the longer you sit still the harder it will become to move forward.

Any plans for the future?

I love where I am right now. Lowe Profero is always getting bigger and getting better work, so I hope to remain a part of that.

I'd like to do more talking about our industry. I recently did a guest lecture at Middlesex, and I want to keep getting more involved with education and charities. I want to talk to more students and get them involved and inspired, and just tell more people about the industry. I didn't know you could be a programmer in advertising, but it's an industry that's constantly growing so more people need to know about it, or there will be a deficit of talent. I'm passionate about making sure that people know about it, even if it's just by 30 students at a time.

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