Frontlines to Deadlines: The Journey from Military to IT Project Management

David Sewell, Senior Project Manager for Hutchinson Networks, explains how his time in the Armed Forces prepared him for a career in project management.


Enlisting at the age of 18 originally in the Army Air Corps, David Sewell trained professionally as a Mental Health Nurse. During his Service, David would serve eight operational tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland. His last tour, Afghanistan, saw David treat servicemen suffering a myriad of mental health conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Now, David has transitioned into senior IT project management, managing the critical infrastructure of a large UK airport and large UK car retailer, among others. He explains how the skills that he acquired during his time serving in the military helped him transition from the military to civilian life as a Project Manager.


What was your role in the military and how was that experience?

I come from a military family. My family either served in the military or were nurses. I combined the two and joined the Army, and eventually became a Mental Health Nursing Officer. During my service, I was in command of the mental health unit or a mental health team in various places across the UK and the world.

Initially, I joined the Army Air Corps when I was 18, which I did for a few years. I then moved on and went to university via the military and became a Mental Health Nurse. I specialised in various treatments such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, depression, among others and then when eventually commissioned, went through Sandhurst. I finished there and took up my first command positions in what we would call a DCMH – Department Community Mental Health Unit – as a Second in Command.

I’ve completed eight operational tours in demanding environments including Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. My last tour, Afghanistan, Whilst it was a very pressurised environment, I learned a lot about people from my time as in command of the Field Mental Health Team.

After I left the military, I chose technology as something completely different, and I am now the Senior Project Manager for Hutchinson Networks. In my current role, I manage and stabilise the Project Team, moving them from a reactive to a more proactive way of working.


What areas does your team look after today?

The Project Team that I look after sits under Hutchinson Networks’ Advanced Infrastructure Services (AIS). AIS is about delivering bespoke solutions designs for clients. So, the Project Team itself is about coordination and collating information from the solutions architects, the clients’ input and internal input, and about putting a project plan together that can deliver that design. Once they get to that delivery stage then we hand off into our Managed Services component. But in general terms, we look after everything that is AIS-oriented that is deemed a project or a program.


What does a typical day in project management involve?

Most of my day is finding out what’s going on – finding out if there’s any issues, risks, and dependencies that are going on across the board. And the rest of it is just ensuring that project governance has been adhered to across our clients’ projects that we’re involved in.


“My role is all about people, whether it’s Hutchinson Networks’ staff or clients, communication is vital.”


How does project management compare to working in the army?

When I was leaving the military I was advised that project management was a great career choice where I could use my experiences and skill set. In terms of similarities, it’s similar in terms of working under pressure and understanding the bigger picture of what that decision is going to impact on. But within the military, it’s obviously very structured, very hierarchical. That’s not the same with any of the companies that I’ve worked with, including Hutchinson Networks.

In the military, you face some very high-pressure situations that can be a matter of life or death. In my role as Senior Project Manager, I try to be as calm as I can under pressure. I’ve got to lead them through difficult times and high-pressure scenarios. I have to be able to manage what I’ve learned since I’ve been out in the civilian world with what took away from the military at the same time.


READ MORE: Key to Success: Embracing Challenges Head-on


You talked about Afghanistan and other very challenging environments. Have those specifically taught you anything ahead of your current role?

I’m quite laid back. So when the pressure is on, there’s a mantra that I say – and again this goes back to testing the waters with what you can utilise from the military in the civilian world. It’s simple: unless someone is dead or dying, then there shouldn’t be any panic about it. Now, what that has allowed me to do is be able to take a step back during problematic events.


“When the heat is on I like to look at the bigger picture, start bringing options together, and start putting a common sense approach on whatever the problem is.”


In your in your career, what’s been the most challenging hurdle that you’ve had to overcome?

I think to transition out of the military and forging a new career. At the very beginning, the hurdle was about my lack of technical knowledge. So what I had to do when I moved out of the military – obviously a very different role in Mental Health Nursing against Project Management in technology – was basically become a sponge.

I was very lucky with the team that I had with me in my first Project role, and I’m still learning with the team that I have today. And although I consider myself reasonably proficient within the technical world and understanding the various technologies, there’s always somebody that knows more. Everybody has their own skill sets and it’s invaluable being able to tap into the knowledge that’s around me. And obviously pass on that knowledge as well.


What motivates you?

Getting the job done. My whole career has been about helping others, solving problems and seeing outcomes to the highest standard possible.


How have you seen Hutchinson Networks change since you started?

Hutchinson Networks has doubled in size in the last year, so I’ve seen changes and growth across the board. Our upcoming projects show that we don’t just compete with Scottish technology companies but that we can compete with large multinational organisations too. It’s a privilege to work on such large and complex projects.


And what’s your favourite way to unwind during your time off?

I have no hobbies or interests, I have a son! So it’s about spending as much time with him as possible. If I have a long drive home, so I like listening specifically to online radio, mainly Radio 4 Comedy. There used to be a couple of technology podcasts that I would listen to myself, from various vendors. I’ve tapped into podcasts now around various methodologies. I’m really interested in the use of the agile methodology in larger projects.


What’s the best advice that you’ve ever been given?

I would say the best advice I’ve been given – and this actually stems from my time in the military – is that “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy”. You can plan and plan, you can run theoretical tests – the military has what’s called a tactical exercise without troops (TEWT) – and it’ll look amazing and you’ll be down to 20-minute intervals. But as soon as you get on site and start engaging with the client, I guarantee there’ll be something that crops up that puts that plan – and it might only be a couple minutes – out of sync. In some cases that I’ve seen previously one to two years’ delay. What I learned from my time in the military is always having a backup plan where possible and to be fluid – adapt and overcome.


What advice would you give people who are leaving the Army and embarking on civilian life after many years?

I’d advise them that they are going to panic. I still remember the blind panic I had leading up to my final day within the military but maintaining a clear head. Look at your options. Don’t try and find your equivalent within the civilian world. A new career doesn’t have to be daunting or scary. There’s a lot of soft skill sets that are suitable across the board, project management is just one example. The soft skills of leadership, management, your ability to make decisions, assimilate and absorb information – these are all things that you’ve learned and adopted and trained well for within the military and suit lots of positions well.


What do you wish someone had told you when you first started out?

Take your time. And not everything will be perfect. Certainly, in my younger days, I used to rush a lot, 100 miles an hour everything. Then I switched from that and started to become a perfectionist. Again even within the military, but certainly in the civilian world and within project management, nothing will ever be a hundred percent perfect. I’ve now learned that less haste and more speed work better in life and projects.


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When you see that you delivered a solution to a satisfied client, it's all working as it should, you can walk away with your head held high. That's what motivates me.

David Sewell - IT project management

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