Published: 18 June 2024

“Explore your options and look for something that will broaden your experience”

Craig Walker graduated from Surrey in 1981 where he completed his BSc (Hons) in Chemical Engineering. He then followed a career in IT, living in some amazing places around the world, and ending up as a Global CIO for one of the world’s largest companies. After retiring, he then spent 4 years as  an SVP, Strategic Advisor in the Office of the CEO for Salesforce, Craig tells us about how a placement year helped shape his career.

Where did you complete your placement year and why did you apply for it?

I completed it at The Wellcome Foundation, Dartford Kent which is now a part of GSK. I applied for it because I think it is important to get some work experience and put into practice some of the things you have already learned. It also prepares you for subsequent interviews as you get real life experience of working in a team, managing projects, delivering results, and knowing how to manage yourself in a work environment.

What was important to you when looking for your placement?

Being able to do a job and understanding what I enjoyed or what my preferences might be for future roles. It also steered me towards options that I knew I enjoyed in my final year curriculum. 

What advice would you give to students looking to do a placement?

I would say explore your options and look for something that will broaden your experience and move outside of your comfort zone. 

How did your placement shape your early career?

It had a profound impact as I realised my future lay in IT rather than Chemical Engineering. I ended up being hired by Shell in 1981 as a programmer in London. I went on to be an expatriate in Colombia, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, South Africa, and the US ending up as a Global CIO for Shell’s Downstream businesses. I would never have done that had I not have the chance to programme and deliver a process control solution for one of Wellcome’s batch manufacturing processes. 

What was your favourite memory whilst on your placement? 

There are many. From the friends I made, the sports I played and the many lessons I learned on the job. My fondest memory is a tale of working late at night by myself in one of the dimly lit pilot plants; both frightening and funny…

I was working in the pilot plant for a pharmaceutical company. This was where we would hook kit together to make the required chemical product. Often these batch reactions took hours, so I could earn some extra money by volunteering to come in during the evening to move the product. 

So, I would set up "no entry" signs, get the steel barrels ready, and then put on a big astronaut type suit, hook up the air pipes, get a shovel and start digging the stuff out of the drier and putting it into the barrels. Now imagine this place at night, there are all sorts of noises going on around you; creaks as things cool down, steam venting, pipes clanging, and it is dimly lit by then. If that wasn’t enough, I had just seen the first Alien film the previous weekend! 

All I could hear was my rhythmic breathing inside the suit, and suddenly I got a tap on my shoulder. I screamed and spun round, shovel in hand ready to take on the alien. Instead, there was a man standing there, no protective clothing, with a toolbox and a work order, speaking to me. Clearly, health and safety was not what it is today! I eventually shooed him out of the place, but I have never forgotten the feeling of terror when I felt that tap on the shoulder. 


Want to inspire the future generation of alumni? Let us know about your Placement year here. 

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