Alumnus James Vowles is at the forefront of one of the most exhilarating and high profile sports in the world.
As chief strategist for the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team, he is ultimately responsible for the planning and calculations needed to get the most technologically-advanced race cars in the world safely round high-speed tracks, week after week.
James is approaching the pinnacle of his profession, and his career began with an ambition nurtured while studying Computing Sciences at UEA. He returned to the University in July to receive an honorary doctorate, and found time to share his experience and advice on reaching for that dream career.
James chose UEA after studying for the International Baccalaureate in Switzerland. “UEA had a very good reputation at the time for biosciences and chemistry, and certainly I’d heard about some of the work it had done in computer graphics which initially gave me some insight.
“My sister was also at UEA and it came down to some London universities or UEA, and the draw for me was the fact that I had family there and that when I walk round the campus I had a very good feeling.”
James believes that feeling comfortable and happy at your university of choice is ultimately as important as the subject being studied.
“I think the point of a degree is that it shows me - as an employer - that someone is able to learn successfully to that level. That is what a degree offers you. So what you’re looking for from a university isn’t just the subject because they will all provide that to a certain extent.
“What you’re looking for is somewhere where you know you will grow as an individual, feel comfortable as an individual, and end up successful as a result of both of those because you have this level of comfort.”
His return to UEA to receive an honorary degree in front of the graduates from the Schools of Computing Sciences and Mathematics was not his only recent visit to campus. “I snuck in about six months ago to show my wife around,” said James. “Her reaction was nothing but positive.
“One of the reasons I was very keen to come back is that the investment is very apparent. From when I was here in the late ‘90s the campus has evolved fairly dramatically, relative to other institutions across the UK, both in accommodation and the addition of new schools including medical and engineering. This is something that actually means quite a bit to me. It means the university is aware of what it needs to be doing to move itself further up both in league tables and success rate, and it is doing that.”
With a long-standing passion for motorsport, James’ decision to try and get into the industry came about while he was studying in UEA’s School of Computing Sciences with additional mathematics and statistics modules – not the typical path to an engineering role.
But once he had made that decision, his ambition and perseverance, as well as contacts he had begun to make in the industry, meant he found a way to move onto the right path. James managed to be the only applicant without an engineering degree to be admitted to a new MSc in Motorsport Engineering at Cranfield University, which also had links with the Cranfield Management School.
“When you go to university, the degree you do gives you formation and the ability to study and learn to a high level in a particular subject area, but that doesn’t mean you’ve been pigeonholed to that route,” said James.
“What UEA gave me was the foundations by which I knew how quickly I could learn a subject matter, how efficiently and how to do that by myself, which gave me the confidence to then choose an area in life which I want to go into, find what’s missing, and then apply myself in that area using the same methods as I learnt at university. And as long as you’ve got the breadth of foundation below that and haven’t specialised so much that all you have awareness of is one single subject matter, you’ll be fine.”
In James’ speech at graduation, he shared his view that there should always be something to look forward to, otherwise you start losing your way in life. Discussing the next steps of a career path on which he’s almost reached the very top, James reiterated this belief.
“The problem f1 creates is that it ruins you for any other job! What other job can you go to and get feedback as to whether you’ve done a good or a bad job within worst case if you’re a designer six weeks and in my position a few seconds. In reality there’s very few.
“There is still some progression within the sport. I only have one level of seniority above me, but that is a level that I want to obtain in the next few years, to start looking towards running the team more from a strategic perspective.”
Beyond that, James plans to focus on his own businesses, some of which are already growing. “It’s something I’ve started dabbling in and I think it’s the only way I will find emotional success, because I’m in control of my own destiny. Ultimately it’ll be within the technology sector and they’ll continue to grow and they’ll be an area for me to focus on later on in life.”
This year, all UEA graduates were invited to leave behind one piece of wisdom to share with incoming students. James contributed his own bit of ‘Gradvice’: “Fundamentally, it’s that every day should be building on what you learned on the previous day. And don’t look back with regrets over what you didn’t do, look forward to what you want to do instead.”