Managing director: career case study

Managing director

Andrew Conway, managing director of Counting Thoughts

What got you interested in physics?
I was good at physics at school, but I wasn’t particularly interested in it. It was astronomy which gave birth to my interest in physics in the end.

What did you study at school and university?
Astronomy wasn’t taught at school, but I knew that I had to take physics and mathematics to take astronomy at University. I became much more interested in physics, maths and statistics by the time I reached university.

What was your career progression?
I was good at taking exams by the end of University meaning that I gained high marks in my degree, despite graduating at the early age of 19. This allowed me to go onto do a PhD in predicting sunspot activity with neural networks. This also involved predicting variations in the Earth’s magnetic field and was very statistical and computational in nature. It was a difficult subject to choose, at the time, because the work was not regarded as “pure physics” and it was difficult to gain acceptance for the work. However, my supervisor, John Brown, who is now the Astronomer Royal, put a lot of faith in me and it paid off. I continued my career with a post doctoral position in the more traditional subject of solar physics and stayed at the University of Glasgow. During this time, I made a lot of useful contacts through travelling to conferences.

I applied for a lectureship at the Open University following my post-doc. This combined my interest in adult education, while allowing me to continue to pursue my research interests. The Open University was involved with many innovations in distance learning and I loved my time with the Open University in Milton Keynes. I am still friends with a couple of my PhD students there and they have followed interesting careers as well. It was a combination of factors which took me away from the Open University and moved me into my current job.

What job do you do now?
I particularly enjoyed the teaching side of my Open University work and I was good at it. This gave me a clear idea that I would like to create a business which used a collaborative style of teaching along with computer simulations for educational purposes. Although I had no prior business experience, I knew that it was a good idea and I had the full support of my wife to go ahead with this project. So I set up Counting Thoughts with two former astronomy classmates and became managing director. The aim was to create high quality educational software, mainly for schools and we talked to teachers to find out what would be relevant to them. We started with higher physics and moved on from there to other subjects and then GCSEs in England. We matched what we could do with what teachers wanted. So setting up the business seemed straight forward.

What does the work involve day to day?
As well as developing software, we carry out consultancy work. As a result of this, I became involved in AMEE the “Avoiding Mass Extinction Engine” which is used by Google’s Carbon Footprint Calculator.

What personal skills or aptitudes do you need for the job?
You need determination, persistence and to work hard. It also helps to be open minded when running a business. Good luck is also essential.

What has been the highlight of your career?
The highlight was having the idea for educational software and being able to make a career and money out of providing something really useful.

How does your physics training help you in that work?
I don’t feel that I was trained in physics; I found it intrinsically interesting. It’s not necessarily fun, but it’s better than fun! Also, the connections I made while at the University of Glasgow have been essential to my career. Having a like minded group of people surrounding you has been very helpful.

Anything else you would like to add?
I played in a band called the Blisters during my time at University with my friend Alex, who now fronts Franz Ferdinand. I suppose I could have gone on to do the “Brian May thing”, but I have no regrets as my career has been and still is hugely rewarding.

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