No, this does neither refer to the End of the World tomorrow(*), nor to Christmas, nor to the End of the Year.
(*) In 8 minutes in my time zone.
I am celebrating an anniversary today: It has been the 20th of December 2003 when I travelled to Tenerife. Escaping snow, cold and Christmas-related rituals.
I had just finished one of those Need-to-be-done-before-Christmas-it’s-so-funny-to-spend-the-nights-in-the-Office projects. At the airport I bought popular science magazines on quantum mechanics and the history of the Curie family.
Actually, I was embarking to another journey and slowly I am realizing today that I am almost there. Fortunately I have not known it would take to long, but I believe the journey has constituted a reward in its own right.
My visits to the Canary Islands have always been entangled with career and life decisions: I have been to Lanzarote nearly 20 years ago as a PhD student – when I was pretty sure I will not stick with academia forever. In Fuerteventura I recovered from having been promoted to my first management position and decided to return to the pleasures of working as a geek specialist soon.
At the end of 2003 it has been a year since I had started to re-read all my university physics text books and lecture notes again ‘for fun’. The pop-sci magazines were intended to serve as light entertainment on the airplane, but finally they triggered a process that could not be stopped ever since. I was determined to work my way back or forth from corporate global IT to physics and engineering. More than that I wanted to invent my own peculiar way of doing that – as explained previously neither academia or a corporate position were an option for me.
Actually, one of the outcomes of the Tenerife episode was an offer to work in a project on applied quantum physics shortly after my travel. Quite flattering, actually. But I declined after some sleepless nights and decided to stick with IT for some time (and gradually transform and control the way I work) instead of returning to postdoc life.
It took one more trip to La Palma the next year in order to finalize the next step – in our joint journey. We founded our company another year later, focussing on some very specific fields in IT. Actually, the final preparation was done when travelling as well: We visited most of the villages and cities in Austria whose name starts with a ‘z’ – an idea created in the company of like-minded strange lifeforms. This trip had a surprising impact: Since the z criterion was so random you were forced to visit places neglected by tourists (Some villages consisted of a single street basically). And all of a sudden you realize how rural and down-to-earth the country is where you have lived – and how immaterial, weird and bizarre the world of global corporations seems to be. It was like Dilbert working on a farm – the ultimate outdoor experience.
Nevertheless, I spent some more years at airports, in chilled data centers, and steel-and-glass office towers, and air-conditioned hotels. But it was a tremendous improvement to work as a self-employed consultant versus working as an employed consultant: No more goals in terms of utilization and billable hours! Paradoxically, I did not work less, but I had the chance to say yes or no to every project request and I was able to become even more specialized in an area I had selected – instead of working on the projects that are on the table and need to be done to meet the numbers.
I was still reading physics stuff including really hard text books, but I admit I focussed on beating my own numbers every year. I am still proud of my achievements and in particular about the fact that I never did anything remotely resembling marketing. Unless you count ‘drinking coffee with old friends’ as marketing.
I was in Lanzarote at the beginning of 2010 – considering a career change really seriously, but not yet sure about how to start exactly. I had acquired a ‘licence’ as a ‘Professional Engineer in Applied Physics’ by the end of 2009 and we have started to tinker with an unconvential heat pump system.
Fast forwarding to end of 2010 – I was stressed and nearly burnt-out by the end-of-year deadlines, not so much by the work load but by what I called a lack of meaning. Suddenly I felt like the anti-security consultant who tried to help really productive people to get their work done despite security and compliance. Ironically, IT security was (and is) still ‘hot’ – I have been busy with declining project requests long after I had stated firmly I will not do this any more.
In December 2010 I would have loved to write a good-bye e-mail to all of my customers, but I was not ready for that yet. I left hints between the lines on some of my websites but nobody noticed. The difficult part in the decision was not about renouncing of future revenue, it was rather about disappointing all of my ‘fans’ who invented nicknames as ‘Grande Dame of PKI’ for me.
Then there was Easter vacation and accidentally I heard some stories about friends from friends who had been forced to change their careers – due to the economic crisis or health issues. And then I knew that my personal challenge was to initiate the change all by myself.
After having considered zillions of postgraduate studies since 10 years (incl. philosophy, computer science, mathematics, psychology, science communication) I enrolled for another master’s degree programme in energy engineering immediately after Easter. Our personal heating system project proliferated into a research project. I informed all my customers, one by one, experimenting with the way I presented my story. I got amazing feedback and heard interesting stories of other IT people who wanted to do something else or who basically stated ‘Finally you are doing what you always wanted’. During the time I was already phasing out my IT activities I had a meeting with a new potential business partner nonetheless, playing my IT role for the last time (I thought). Months later I confessed to this partner and he told me right away that it was clear to him from our lunch small talk that my heart was in science and engineering. I could not even remember I talked about science with him.
So here I am: Aspiring consulting engineer in renewable energies, the transition period is going to end soon. The pilot system is doing fine and I am entering the final purt in the third term (of four) in my master’s programme. I am delighted by feedback and questions from potential customers and partners – during the stealth mode period.
More often than not in the past I did not celebrate achievements or milestones, but rather executed the perfectly designed plan. I did not travel the world after completing my first Master’s or PhD studies, and between jobs I spent two weeks of vacation maximum. But this time I take every single step with utmost awareness.
Further reading / context: Reading and contributing to discussions on www.physicsforums.com helped me a lot to develop my personal strategy. My postings over there allow for tracking the gradual shift in my attitude.