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Tips on making a radical career shift

February 14, 2006

Today's issue of Economic Times has a cover story on people who made drastic career shifts in their "High Flier" supplement. I'm one of the people featured in the story (how I wish I could actually find the darn article on their web site) because I moved from technology and started a far-eastern restaurant. The writer of the story had sent me a long list of questions a few weeks back, and I had written a mini-essay in response. Much of what I wrote didn't make it to the piece (ah, the size constraints of print media) but when I read it back, I thought that it would be good to post the whole thing here to help others who might be considering a career change like mine. So here goes...

1) What are the main reasons that provoked you to make a career transition from being a software engineer to a hotelier?

I have been passionate about cooking since I was 13. I chose to go with IT as a career, but by my mid-twenties, I had decided that in another 10 years, I would have my own restaurant. So it was more about moving the plans forward by a few years. I chose to do this because I was 27, single, and thought I could take more risks now than if I were, say 35. Also, the IT industry was going through its bust phase a few years ago, and companies were doing crazy things, including laying off lots of people. I decided that it was the right time to move.

2) What emotions did you go through while making a major career leap? Weren’t you a little skeptical of abandoning the career you did for so many years for something very new?

It definitely wasn't an easy decision to make, and I'm not the impulsive type at all. But several of my friends said I should give it a shot. Once I started considering it seriously, I thought about it for a whole month to make sure it wasn't just a passing fad. After I made a firm decision, I experienced anxiety and apprehension about a whole new future, but there was also some exhilaration about doing something I was so passionate about.

3) Did you go through the following emotions while you were considering a shift from software:

--- "I'm sure there's something else I'd like to do. I'm just not sure what it is." If yes, how did you cope with it?

Not really. I am a down-to-earth fellow, and I prefer to deal with things I know, than worry about some ideal career that hasn't occurred to me yet. That million-dollar idea may strike me one day still, but I'm not going to put everything else on hold waiting for it. I prefer to instead keep my eyes open for opportunities in the future instead.

--- "I know what I want to do, but I don't know how to make money doing it." Too many of us want a certain career but hold back because we don't think we can make a living at it. Did you think the same as well?

Well... many of us have lists of things we'd like to do if that pesky matter of earning a living weren't an issue. I would have liked to do several things, like being a cartoon voiceover artist (not much scope in India for English cartoon voiceover work), start a no-nonsense advertising agency (not practical), start a product-based software company (couldn't think of any product ideas at the time)... a few more. But I ruled them out one by one. Idealism and optimism are wonderful things, but they must be tempered with pragmatism.

--- "I dislike the job I have, but I'm not ready to give it up.” If yes, how did you cope with it?

No. I liked what I was doing. I still miss it sometimes.

4) What were the major obstacles (consequential or inconsequential) you were confronted with when you decided to shift from one career track to the other?

The biggest obstacle was my lack of experience in the restaurant business. I only knew that I had a good product, and that was because I had confidence in my own cooking abilities. Beyond that, there was a world of things to learn about running a restaurant itself. But even before that, I was confronted with the arduous task of designing and actually setting up a new restaurant in an empty commercial space. It certainly wasn't easy, and two years later, I find myself still learning things. Dealing with various government agencies, bureaucracy, corruption, and the tons of paperwork was another learning experience.

I think one  of the best decisions I made was to hire an experienced and knowledgeable person as my manager. I firmly believe that one must do the things one is best at, and leave specialised duties to the specialists.

5) On a very technical note, what checklist should one follow before making a drastic decision to change career paths?

It depends on whether you plan to be an entrepreneur or get a salaried job in another industry. The latter option is a lot safer because you don't have to deal with so much change all at the same time. But a few essential things to ponder are:
  1. Do you truly want to switch? Perhaps you're simply not in the right position, the right company, or both. If so, shifting to a new job in a new company might be a less risky option.
  2. Are you sure you're fit for the new profession? Doing something just because everyone else is doing it is not a good idea, not only because you may not succeed, but also because you may be late to cash in on a fad. Being good at a business requires that you either know your trade very well, or have the ability to spot a business opportunity and then hire the best people to run it for you. Some people are great at getting work done, but it's not for everyone. Do your homework diligently. Make a proper business plan with numbers and chart out the most pessimistic scenario.
  3. Are you willing to take the risk? A new business will not start making money for a while. Can you handle not having a stable source of income? Do you have a wife, kids, or family to feed? Do you have a backup plan if your venture fails? (And some ventures always will. It's the circle of life.) If you're not starting your own business and getting a job in a new industry, you might have to take a pay cut because you're not joining on the same level. Are you ready for that? Will the reward be worth it?
  4. Do you have spare money to keep you going in the bad times? You should have at least six months of salary available for living expenses, preferably ten.
  5. Do you see yourself doing this for the next twenty years? If that thought makes you pause for more than 30 seconds, consider whether it's really a good long-term decision.
6) After so many years, what is that one thing you miss about being in software? Do you have any regrets?

I was quite passionate about my former career too, and I do miss it on days when I'm feeling low or business has not been good. But life is full of trade-offs. There is no way I would have been able to manage two careers simultaneously, and I had to make a choice. I made it. I guess the biggest thing I miss about software is having peers to talk to, socialise, and exchange views with. In my current job, I'm the big boss, and the people I manage are mostly of a different background than my own. I don't have any colleagues with whom I can go out and enjoy a weekend. Heck, my job doesn't allow me the luxury of weekends. When other people are out enjoying themselves, we in the restaurant business are working the hardest. My day off is on a Monday, when everyone else is starting their work week. I also miss having a regular paycheck every month. Like I said earlier, life is full of compromises.

7) After the career shift, how did you evolve not just as a successful professional but also as a human being?

I have learned a few skills that I might otherwise not otherwise have picked up. I work in a business with a very low tolerance for errors, and where the word "deadline" means "in the next 5 minutes", not in the next five weeks. It has taught me some unbelievable project management skills. Work in a busy restaurant on a weekend, and you will truly learn what it means to make resource management decisions in seconds without using an Excel spreadsheet. You will learn how to best allocate resources when you have ten tasks and only enough manpower to complete two in the next ten minutes.

Apart from that, I now feel the responsibility of being responsible for the livelihood of 28 people, most of whom aren't that rich. They depend on me to help feed their families, and that is an enormous responsibility. I follow the management principle of "speak softly and carry a big stick" - tough but fair.

Lastly, I have picked up a completely new set of people skills. As a fine dining restaurant owner, I face thousands of people in a month, and they come with varying temperaments and moods. I have to be polite and courteous to everyone who walks through my door, even when they get upset, and even if technically it's not our fault at all. Making sure everyone leaves happier when they walk out the door is a tough task, but it's a challenge, and when they do, it is very rewarding.

I get the chance to put a smile on people's faces, and it makes it all worthwhile.

8) What advice will you give to people who want to chase their dreams of pursuing their dream career but are little skeptical to do so?

I would advise them to persist with their skepticism. Yes, seriously. It is good to dream, but not to day-dream. You need hope, but not delusion. That said, you should realise that to boldly go where no one has gone before (please pardon my Star Trek geek cliche) does indeed require a leap of faith and a hope for a market that may not even exist yet (certainly true in my case.) Just be sure that your decision is an informed one and based on solid research, not solely on an impulsive moment. We have to deal with the constraints of the world we live in, and one of those is earning a livelihood.

9) To sum it up, how would you describe your journey from one career path to the other?

Disruptive, painful, anxiety-laden, thrilling, scary, and yet oh so satisfying too. It's a cocktail of emotions. If you're not ready for the tumultuous nature of the career shift roller coaster, you shouldn't go along for the ride.

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