Reinvent Yourself

Andrew Tuck sits in a stylish loft in New York City's Soho neighborhood with some of his life's work spread before him. There's his philosophy book, published by a top-drawer academic press, which he wrote in the 1980s while working at his day job: teaching students at Columbia University. Then there's his recording of some jazz tunes that he composed while he worked as a musician at night during the same period. "I was living my undergraduate dream," says Tuck, now 47. "I was teaching at an Ivy League institution and working with well-known musicians."

To your average wage slave, that kind of life might sound enviable. But Tuck was miserable. "I was killing myself to pursue both dreams," he says. "I didn't get any satisfaction from my successes. I cringed when I listened to my recordings, because I felt that I was never going to be as good as I wanted to be. And I just felt such constant pressure to come up with another article for an academic journal and the next idea for a book."

So Tuck decided to reinvent himself, to make the sort of dramatic career change that so many of us think about, but few of us actually pursue. Today, Andy Tuck, the pianist-philosopher, is a founding partner of arc (Applied Research and Consulting), which uses social research to help such high-profile clients as vh1 and the World Bank make decisions. "You need to know that you do have a choice in the matter of your career," he says. "But no one is going to force you to take a risk. You have to make that choice yourself. And sitting in one place and continuing to do something that doesn't make you happy is a choice too."

Unfortunately, too many people choose to stay put and stay unhappy. "It's a variation on the golden-handcuffs phenomenon," explains Marti Smye, 49, a career consultant based in Toronto and author of "Is It Too Late to Run Away and Join the Circus? A Guide for Your Second Life" (Macmillan, 1998). "When you're so damn good at what you do, it's extraordinarily difficult to convince yourself to give it up — even when it's not making you happy. Only about 10% of all people who daydream about making a radical career change actually do it. And most of them are forced into it because they got fired or because their company moved away."

This article is dedicated to that reticent 90%. Consider it a call to action propelled by a simple question: If not now, when? There has never been a better time than now to make a radical career change. Fast-growing companies are starved for talent. Millions of people are choosing to become free agents and are helping others make that same choice. The stunning growth of the Internet has created whole industries that didn't exist five years ago — and genuinely vast opportunities for people without technical expertise to participate in the digital revolution.

What follows are before-and-after stories of four people who have made such radical changes in their work lives — and the lessons they learned along the way. Besides Andy Tuck, there's also Cecilia Barajas, a prosecutor turned video-game producer; Bob Presman, a sportscaster turned financial consultant; and Nancy Koors, a long-time telephone-company employee who breathed new life into her career by going to work for a casket manufacturer. "Ten years ago," says Smye, "big companies made some radical changes by convincing themselves that they didn't have to continue to do the same things in the same way. There's no reason that today, we shouldn't apply that same sort of mind-set to our own careers."

Plan? What Plan?

The blueprint for a standard-issue job change is pretty clear: Spend months drawing up your perfect new job, chat up your network, zero in on a few good companies, make some contacts, send in your résumé, and go on the interviews. It's a perfectly good way to get a new job. When you're hunting for a new career, however, a focused plan may keep you from seeing the amazing things that exist outside that narrow field of vision.

When Andy Tuck decided to shift gears, he gave himself only one broad directive: After years of working outside the mainstream — playing piano in jazz clubs, teaching, and writing — he wanted to see what putting on a suit and working from 9 am to 5 PM would be like. He was also honest with himself about how little he knew about what that would actually involve. "As someone who had made a living as an artist, I defined myself almost as alternative to the mainstream," he says. "But I finally decided that I never really knew why I felt it was so important to define myself in opposition to what most everyone else was doing. In fact, I didn't know all that much about what those people were doing. And how would I know unless I tried it? That was the challenge I gave myself."

For someone like Tuck, and for anyone who knows that she or he needs a dramatic change but has no idea what to do next, trying to create a 12-step plan for finding the perfect job is probably a bad idea. "For me," Tuck says, "the change was not going to be about having a plan, researching every opportunity in the world, and focusing in until I found the job that fit me best. Back then, I hadn't discovered some of the strengths and traits that I have. And how would I have found out about what I do now? If I had tried to plan such a career move, I wouldn't have gotten to where I am now."

Bill Schaffer, 64, a European business-development manager at Sun Microsystems Inc. and author of "High-Tech Careers for Low-Tech People" (Ten Speed Press, 1999), is struck by how many people in traditional industries plan themselves right out of a move into the digital world. "Most people give up on such an idea so easily," he says. "We're programmed to be self-critical, and we assume we don't have the knowledge or the contacts to make a change from low tech to high tech. Some of that is lack of confidence, which comes from fear of uncharted territory. That hesitancy to change also comes from ego, from not wanting to deal with the possibility of rejection. But some of that is simply the result of being ignorant."

Ignorant of what? "People assume that if they have no computer-science background, they can't get a job in technology," Schaffer says. "That just isn't true. When I came to Sun, I got more curious about this, and I got into the habit of asking people about their backgrounds. I met someone with a theology degree, someone who was an urban planner, and a person with a background in comparative literature. And these were not just people in HR or PR, but people working in product management, in sales, and in other highly technical jobs."

Small Experiments Can Yield Big Changes

By the early 1990s, Bob Presman had achieved about all he could as a radio announcer in Rockford, Illinois. He had served as news director of the station with the highest ratings and had won several awards. His on-air alter ego, dubbed "Mr. Baseball," was popular with listeners, who would try to stump him with trivia questions. He was the play-by-play announcer for the Rockford Lightning of the Continental Basketball Association, which serves as an unofficial minor league for the NBA.

"With many careers, at some point it becomes hard to imagine pursuing them forever," says Presman, now 52, reflecting on his days as an announcer. "Psychologically, I was ready for a new challenge." But what could he attempt next, given that at the time he was 44 years old and had an 11-year-old son to support? He wasn't exactly sure, but he didn't lose much sleep over it, either. "Looking for a new career can be like searching for a spouse," says his wife, Mary Ann. "The harder you look, the less likely you are to find anything."

That was true for Presman, who found his next calling through a blind date. "Out of nowhere, someone from Smith Barney called to tell me that the company was looking for people like me to be financial consultants," he says. "We had lunch, and it turns out that Smith Barney was particularly interested in people who had been successful in another field." Once Presman, who had always been an avid investor, got this bolt from the blue, he considered the field more carefully — and eventually signed on.

In 1998, after a few years of navigating the bureaucracy at Cincinnati Bell, Nancy Koors was also ready for a change. "I was working with new products, like Internet service and DSL, but to make any strategic move at all, I'd have to remake my case five times," says Koors, who is now 30, describing the trouble with working for that vestige of the old Bell system. "It was physically draining. I would literally work night and day, and I got nowhere."

At the time, the only radical change Koors wanted in her next job was a shift in culture. "I wanted to create and lead a project that involved marketing and the Internet, for a company that moved more quickly," she says. That reflected uncommonly clear thinking. "People think they need to throw out the baby with the bathwater when they attempt to reinvent themselves," says Betsy Collard, 59, director of program and innovation at the Career Action Center in Cupertino, California. "But just because you want to change the context in which you work doesn't mean you have to change the content of what you do."

Headhunters around town, however, informed Koors that most companies weren't quite ready to hire in-house Internet strategists. Still, one day an ad appeared in the local paper that caught her eye. An unnamed manufacturer was looking for someone to help the company with online marketing. So she dashed off a letter.

"About a week later, I got a call from someone who said he worked for the Aurora Casket Company," Koors recalls. "I thought he was a telemarketer selling coffins. Then, he told me that he had my résumé. 'Where did you get my résumé?' I asked him. And he said, 'Well, actually, you sent it to us after we put an ad in the paper.' At this point, my daughter was jumping up and down on the bed, and I told him, 'Look, I don't think that I want to drive to Aurora, Indiana every day to work for a casket company.' "

The caller was Chris Barrott, one of the family members who runs Aurora, the second-largest casket manufacturer in America, with annual sales of about $100 million. "He simply asked me to hear him out first, and then I could turn him down if I wanted to," Koors says. "He kept me on the phone for two hours. He had a vision of using interactive software and the Internet to make it easier and more pleasant for funeral-home directors to show caskets to grieving families. But he had no idea where to start. And he wanted me to come and do it for him."

Koors could have ended the conversation after 30 seconds, but because she was open to the wildest of possibilities, she decided to keep listening. After that two-hour phone call, she was seriously intrigued — and eventually convinced. Today, Koors is the Internet marketing director at Aurora.

That is what's so powerful about opening your eyes and ears — and maintaining an open mind. "Every step you take," says Andy Tuck, "should increase, not decrease, the breadth of your opportunities. I tried to think of my move as an experiment."

Knowing full well that any experiment is only a test, and that he could end or reverse his experiment at any time, Tuck called a few friends and former students to quiz them about how they spent their days. His bass player was doing market research by day for Yankelovich Partners; someone he knew from graduate school at Princeton was in advertising with Young & Rubicam. He landed interviews with both companies, received two job offers, and took the advertising job because it paid a bit more.

After a year, that experiment ended when a friend of a friend hired Tuck as a political consultant for Sawyer Miller Group, which had an active practice doing political media campaigns. That led to dabbling in the firm's corporate-crisis practice, which was a great arena to play in as companies downsized, went bankrupt, and merged throughout the first half of the 1990s. "I had no idea that kind of job existed," he says now. "But it really worked for me."

Admittedly, going from a brief vocational experiment to a dream job in such a short time is rare. Attorney Cecilia Barajas, 37, dabbled in video-game design for many years before one of her game designs helped her turn a passion into a profession. "The student center at the University of California at Santa Barbara had a Ms. Pac Man machine, and I got hooked as an undergraduate," she says. "Then my friend and I started going to this arcade; the guy who owned it slept in a room over the store. We would throw rocks at his window in the morning to wake him up so he could come unlock the doors and let us in to play."

After a brief stint reading scripts for Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles, Barajas entered law school at the University of Virginia, where she owned a personal computer for the first time. "I was up all night playing computer games and would miss classes the next morning," she recalls. "I'd fall asleep with the wires entangled around my legs and the monitor at the foot of my bed." Toward the end of law school, as part of an independent-study project, she and her future husband, who was also a gaming freak, built a game that ran mock trials.

Barajas returned to California, passed the bar, and eventually landed a job with the LA district attorney's office, where she spent four years putting criminals in jail. It didn't leave much time for games, but she still daydreamed about designing her own one day. After a yearlong sabbatical, during which she traveled the world with her husband, Barajas returned to LA and found that the district attorney's office couldn't take her back right away because of a hiring freeze. "So I started to jot down ideas for a game I had been thinking about for a long time," she says. "I figured I would send it out, and if someone liked the idea, at least I'd get to play it someday."

The girlfriend of Barajas's brother-in-law was an MIT alumna who knew the creative-affairs director at a game company called Activision Inc., a pioneer in the use of CD-ROMs for computer games. So that was Barajas's first stop. "They told me they weren't interested in my game," she recalls. "But they asked me if I would be interested in coming to work for them as a low-level producer. I was shocked. I couldn't figure out why anyone would want some lawyer to help them design highly technical computer games."

Barajas didn't come to any conclusions right away, but she decided she didn't need to. It would be an experiment, for both her and her employers, even though neither party had considered conducting it until the moment she walked through the front door of Activision with a big head of steam and some game sketches under her arm. "There will always be crime in Los Angeles, and there will always be criminals to put away," she says. "I went back and forth on it for a while, but I knew that I would be a fool to pass up an opportunity to work for Activision."

Match Values, Not Skills

Acting on instincts the way Barajas did is gutsy. She didn't know much about Activision and knew even less about whether a female lawyer would fit in with a bunch of male programmers, or whether she had any aptitude for game production. Surprisingly, most career experts report that you shouldn't worry too much about your skills when considering when and whether to make a radical change. Smart, ambitious people generally find a way to adapt and grow in new environments.

No, it's the fitting-in part that ends up being most important. "When you're trying to reinvent your career, you're not reinventing your personality," notes career consultant Marti Smye. "So it's more important to match your belief systems with your new organization than to make sure your skills are compatible. One thing that stays the same when you make a change is that you still have to go to work with people every day, and the biggest frustrations at work often result from those people having very different ideas about how the work ought to get done."

Bob Presman, however, had no idea how true this really was in the brokerage business. But he soon found out once he began comparing Smith Barney with other investment companies. "When you're a radio personality, you don't have a lot of control over your future. Stations get sold, and ad revenues fluctuate with the economy," he says. "So if I was going to become a financial consultant, I wanted to go somewhere where I would have as much control as possible. Smith Barney seemed to have the most entrepreneurial culture. I felt like the company would be working for me, not the other way around." Plus, he wanted his clients to identify as much with him as an individual as they did with his firm. Today, his assistant answers the phone by saying, "The Bob Presman Group," not "Hello, Smith Barney," and none of the higher-ups seem to mind.

While Presman did thorough research before he determined that the corporate ethos at Smith Barney represented the way he wanted to do business, it may not always take so much work to convince yourself that you've found the right organization to host your radical career change. "Magic happens," says author Bill Schaffer. "There has to be a spark between you and the person you'll be working with. If there is no enthusiasm in the air when the two of you meet for the first time, it's hard for that element of magic to emerge."

It had taken two hours, but after that first blitzkrieg of a phone call from Chris Barrott at Aurora Casket, Nancy Koors had built up a fair bit of enthusiasm for the job. "It was an opportunity to be an evangelist," she says. "Most of my friends in the Internet world thought I should seize the opportunity."

But her friends weren't going to have to answer to Barrott every day. He was the scion of a family-owned business that didn't have to please stockholders, or hire gadflies like Koors, if it didn't want to. Plus, the business operated in a hidebound industry. "In many ways, Aurora could sit still for years and operate the same way it always has," Koors says. "No other company is about to force it to completely reinvent itself."

It all came down to this: If she was an outsider hired to shake up a slow-moving organization, could the company really tolerate her over the long haul? Koors spent a week searching for clues. "I went and found Aurora's Web site. It was horrible, but I was impressed that there was one," she says. "I talked to funeral-home directors about the company, and everyone seemed to really like it.

"Most important, from the moment I walked in for my interview I had a good feeling about Chris. He was passionate about this project. I told him how blunt I can be, and he didn't mind. What I didn't know was whether he would be a micromanager, since it was, after all, his family's business. I didn't know for sure, but he seemed genuinely sincere." Because this was much more a change of job context than content for Koors, she was confident that she could get the job done if left to her own devices. She just needed to be sure that Barrott would give her the free reign that she needed. She decided to give him, and Aurora, a chance.

To Change Big, Work Hard

So Andy Tuck declared himself a consultant, though he still wasn't quite sure what that was. Nancy Koors started hawking caskets, though she had never set foot in a funeral home before. Cecilia Barajas left the courtroom to work with a bunch of programmers, and Bob Presman had to find people in Rockford who believed that Mr. Baseball could handle their life savings. These tasks were not going to be easy, so this was where all the hard work began. "You have to be absolutely obsessed when you're making such a big change," says Barajas. "It's the downside of finding work that you really believe in. To get up to speed and succeed, you have to absolutely pour yourself into it."

That's why, in the proper Smith Barney tradition, Presman began earning money the old-fashioned way: He made cold calls. Like thousands of rookie brokers before him, he gathered lists of doctors and country-club members. Then, he began calling them on four nights during the week, plus Saturday mornings, on top of the long hours he put in during the day. This went on for two to three years. "The rejection was tremendous," he recalls. "But I kept at it. I tried to treat it like a game." But it was no game. Reeling those clients in was the only way he would make a living; at that time, Smith Barney cut off every new broker's base salary after about a year.

Like Presman, Barajas was entering an industry in which the pressure was relentless. For brokers, however, finding clients is the hard part; successful investment strategies don't change much over the long haul. But successful design strategies for video games are always changing. Like moviemakers, game companies have to keep guessing about the story lines that will appeal to the public.

"The thing that surprised me was how hard it was," Barajas says now. "The technology allows you to do 50% more with each new release, and there are no rules about what will end up being fun and what won't. The learning curve never flattens out."

So what did she do to keep up? "I worked seven days a week until 2 am or 3 am," she recalls. "I tend to have a pretty obsessive personality, and this job fed on it. When we were on a deadline, all I would think about was the game. I didn't think about my friends. My producer warned me to make sure I didn't end up getting divorced." Incredibly, Barajas's husband became so enamored with the process that he ended up joining the company himself.

The Past Is Prologue

Now, for the good news: No matter how radical your transition seems, you'll still use plenty of your old skills in ways that you never would have imagined. So pay no heed to people who think you're trashing your investment in a JD if you leave the law practice or those who say you're crazy for ditching accounting to run a hotel. "There's this notion out there that says it's sinful if you're doing work that doesn't directly tap your academic training or previous experience," says Barajas. "But it's all of our experiences that formulate who we are at any given moment, and all of it affects how well we do our current jobs."

That was the case for Bob Presman. "Deserved or not, having been on television and on the radio for years gave me credibility with strangers," he says. "I'd call people on the phone, tell them who I was, and they'd say, 'Oh, Mr. Baseball!' I knew some of that would probably go on, but I was surprised at what a tremendous advantage it gave me. Right away, the people I was calling believed that I was someone they knew personally."

Launching a new career as a stockbroker might seem like a strange choice for Presman to make at age 44. At the time, the number of people investing in mutual funds without any professional advice was growing. Plus, outsiders have always seen cold-calling as a young person's game requiring a young person's stamina.

Presman doesn't see it that way, though. "My age was a huge advantage," he says. "First of all, I had to make this work so I could support my family, so I had a lot more urgency than I would have had if I had started doing this at 22. Second, you're asking people to invest their retirement money with you. There's a large percentage of people who simply don't want to give all that money to someone so young."

In fact, Smith Barney has recognized this marketplace reality, and the firm has begun attempting to attract more career changers. It even posts ads in the lobbies of its branch offices, in case any customers want to do what Presman did.

Cecilia Barajas hasn't called on her legal knowledge much since she started working at Activision, except for the occasional tip she gives out to colleagues who get nailed for low-level narcotics possession. ("You basically get one free drug bust in California," she says cheerily.) But the traits that helped her put criminals away have certainly come in handy in the gaming world.

"Good lawyers need to have tremendous discipline and a high tolerance for tedium," she says. "When I was studying for the bar or preparing for a trial, I would spend days, sometimes weeks, going over tons of details again and again. Finishing a game is not glamorous, and there are a million things to check. To be able to sit down and do it for 18 hours a day for many days in a row without bitching and moaning was crucial to succeeding at this new career."

For Nancy Koors, her long-latent need for speed was called into action immediately. "I was shocked at how much faster we move at Aurora than I ever did in telecommunications," she says. Chris Barrott took only a week to decide to hire her, and then he informed her that she had just six weeks to build a beta version of her software, so it could debut at the annual funeral directors' convention. She beat the deadline, and drew scores of amazed and bewildered morticians to her demos at the annual shindig.

Since the systems began being sold in May, about 30 have been installed in funeral homes around the country. Many of those homes now buy all of their caskets from Aurora. Meanwhile, the company's biggest competitor still doesn't have a competing product on the market.

Andy Tuck's musical skills had more to do with flexibility than they did with speed. Though the improvisational-jazz-musician-as-business-innovator metaphor is a bit clichéd by now, Tuck says it's as true as ever. "Success in jazz depends on the ability to sit in front of an audience, interpret complex signals simultaneously from other musicians, and then make a snap decision about what to play," he says. "Making a pitch or presenting in front of a client uses the same skills. I love it. It's great fun when there's some big, tough guy in the room at a client's office, and you have to read whether he's pleased with the amazing solo you've just pulled off or whether he's beginning to think that you're just a run-of-the-mill consultant and you need to try it in a different key."

After a brief experiment with chopping off his hair and shaving his beard, Tuck realized that looking like a jazz musician was also a big plus. "Trying to look like everyone else was a total disaster," he says now. "When I walk into a room looking the way I do now, people look at me oddly and say, 'Okay, who's he? He's not one of us. What's his perspective?' Which is great. I'm a consultant. I'm not supposed to be one of them. When I cut off my hair, I had to work much harder to get people to notice me. I don't have to fight for airspace now."

Although many of your skills will be portable, there will be some that you can't take with you. Bob Presman is still nostalgic for his days as a sportscaster, evidenced by the photographs on his office wall of his interview with Michael Jordan after the Bulls won their first NBA championship. If his beloved Chicago White Sox came calling with a play-by-play announcing job, he'd snap it up in a minute. "But I'd continue as a financial consultant in the off-season," he maintains. In the meantime, he's managed to find a way to continue his media career. He now does a nightly stock-market report on television for the local NBC affiliate. He doesn't get paid, but it's great marketing for him and his firm.

So far, Andy Tuck has not been able to bring much music into his new life as a consultant. "If you had told me 15 years ago that in 1999, I'd be doing something professionally that didn't involve music, I would have been horrified," he says. "In fact, I even get a little uncomfortable when someone puts a really good jazz record on. So obviously, I have some ambivalence about it. At this point, I can't even bear to hear myself play, since I'm so out of practice."

Life without jazz, however, isn't as bad as he would have imagined before he changed careers. "Not only have I not ruined my life by doing something more ordinary," he says, "I'm actually much happier."

Ron Lieber (rlieber@fastcompany.com) is a senior writer at Fast Company. But if he weren't, he'd open a bread bakery in Brooklyn.

Sidebar: How to ".com" Yourself

Bill Schaffer knew how to use a keyboard — in other words, when he went to work for Digital Equipment Corp. In 1984, he could type. That was about the extent of his technical expertise. For years, he'd traveled the globe as a consultant, working with the World Bank and other institutions on management-development projects. As he spent more time in his new career, first at Digital and then at Sun Microsystems Inc., more and more liberal-arts majors turned to him for advice about breaking into the high-technology business. So he wrote "High-Tech Careers for Low-Tech People" (Ten Speed Press, 1999), an extremely thorough, utterly down-to-earth guide.

In an interview with Fast Company, Schaffer offered some advice for people who want to take part in the digital gold rush.

How do you get a ".com job" if you've never seen Silicon Valley?

It starts with understanding what the job actually involves. Most people are ill informed about the jobs that they're going after. Who are the people who typically have jobs like the one you want? What are their backgrounds? Finding someone in a company who can answer those questions is ideal.

Is the idea to find the perfect job right away?

Your main objective should be just to get the employee badge that gets you beyond the front door every day. As long as it's something that interests you and something you think you'd be good at, then that's the perfect job to start with.

Isn't it hard, once you're in, not to feel like an impostor?

If you are street-smart, keep your mouth shut, and do an awful lot of listening, you'll quickly pick up your company's culture and how successful people do business there. If you want to understand the technical aspects of the job, though, you can't keep your mouth shut. You can't be afraid to ask questions, and you have to seek out the right people to ask. That's just as true for a manager as it is for someone who's not in a supervisory position.

But isn't it hard for people used to low-tech rhythms to keep up with the pace of change in the digital world?

To survive in the digital field, you have to be good at identifying trends, predicting how your company is going to respond, and then positioning yourself to be essential to your organization's success. That's hard for programmers to do. They can certainly keep up with technology, but most of them will never be marketing or pr people. If you're smart and agile, even if you're from a low-tech field, you might have a better chance of surviving. After all, if you've already changed radically once to get into this industry, you can probably do it again to stay there and advance.

Are there certain attitudes that are special to the .com world?

You have to be able to work amid total chaos. You have to be able to throw out lots of knowledge regularly, since much of what you know quickly becomes obsolete. You also need to be a self-starter. There is very little real management in high tech. And there's not a lot of training for the managers who are around. So be forewarned.

Contact Bill Schaffer by email (bill@hightechcareers.net).

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