Photo by Kace Rodriguez on Unsplash

Lessons From Making A Career Change

In his book “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance”, Former IBM CEO and chairman Lou Gerstner said: “Changing business processes in a company is like setting your hair on fire and then using a hammer to put it out.”

This quote reminded me of making a career change.

Career pivots are very often necessary, and sometimes a requirement for professional survival and relevance. Quite frankly, without relevance you are not desirable to be employed. Your ability is your authority.

Career pivots have taught me to be willing to momentarily work for less money, if the opportunity is right. If the value of the opportunity exceeds the drop in salary, always take the opportunity.

Consider it a long term investment in your future, the money is sure to follow.

Career pivots can be approached in a financially responsible way. As I have mentioned, there might be a temporary slowdown in salary increases or promotions, but you need to keep your eyes on the prize and the longterm goal.

Fear is real, especially if you have a sensitive predisposition like me. Prior to pivots, one does tend to spend time in the belly of the beast. But remember that relationships are important and being open does bring a sense of calm. The company you are pivoting to, need to under stand your fears, your desires and your vision.

Compensation negotiations need to be balanced, should one of the parties (employee or employer) extract too much value from the negotiation process, then resentment is sure to follow with the party that feels exploited. And this is obviously not conducive to a longterm relationship.

Pivoting keeps you humble and hungry, it keeps you on the back-foot (in a good way) and brings a healthy sense of paranoia. Primarily because you find yourself in uncharted territory without the luxury of a comfort zone.

I try to always move forward, while looking inward, and focus on honing my craft.

One-day all data will be underpinned by location.

When I left school I went on to study Land Surveying and ended up working for a government department examining surveys.

It was the advent of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and our office was digitising maps to contribute to the collective GIS creation process.

This was a slight pivot, but still very much related to land surveying.

We were working on a GIS system in the middle 1990's…the future we were working towards was the fact that one-day all data will be underpinned by location.

At the tine this was a far-fetched idea (for me at least), how will all data be geotagged? Who will drive this initiative? My understanding was really limited, navigation systems were an obvious use-case, but I could not see much use beyond that.

Fast forward a few decades, and maps are part of our daily routine, navigation sits on our phones for walking, driving, cycling, etc. Today all pictures, posts, etc are indeed underpinned by location. Location has become ubiquitous and considered a given.

For my career and personal growth I saw GIS as a step in the right direction, but I soon realised that I needed to move closer to the edge of innovation…but where is innovation happening? This was the late 90's.

The Hard Pivot

We had regular GIS user group meetings, occasionally hosting guest speakers. On one occasion, the guest speaker was Dr. Andrew Hutchison and his presentation was an epiphany, for me at least.

On his last slide, he listed a few ultimate devices of the future. I cannot recall any of the other ultimate devices, but the one was voice. He argued that voice access and voice interfaces will be a device of the future.

There the seed was planted to move into speech. At that stage the only voice interfaces were IVR’s, the VoiceXML 1.0 standard was released in 2000.

I left land surveying and joined an IBM Business Partner, which was basically a startup, and a three-man-band.

We worked on the then IBM WebSphere Voice Response & Voice Server, literally from Cape to Cairo.

This is where I (proverbially 🙂) set my hair on fire, while putting it out with a hammer. self-doubt was real, should I continue to pursue this “voice” idea, or turn back to land surveying…

Developing VoiceXML installations, we also worked on TTS with SSML and ASR functionality. We worked on speech enabled IVR’s, which were rudimentary at first but which did deliver a level of flexibility.

The Soft Pivot

When I felt IVR has run its course, I got the opportunity to join a startup again…who wanted to branch out into Conversational AI. This was again an opportunity for me to be involved in building a chatbot for one of the largest Pizza franchises in South Africa.

Differentiation

In closing, while building chatbots, I soon realised that now I find myself on the edge of technology. Where I always wanted to be.

Conversational AI is a crucial part of the fourth industrial revolution. And I knew I wanted to differentiate myself to some degree, and carve out a niche.

I am not a mathematician, nor a statistician, or a prolific programmer.

But I am deeply curious…I like to understand how things work, and I like to be sure of what I talk about.

The surest way for me to achieve this, was to build prototypes, test and experiment.

And share my methods, approaches and findings. Soon there was interest, and I realised I am adding value to the ecosystem.

And somehow it felt that it was all coming together.

In Conclusion

All along, my goal was to achieve three things:

  1. Mastery
  2. Autonomy
  3. Purpose

This quote from James A. Michener sums it up perfectly:

“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he’s always doing both. ”

― James A. Michener

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Cobus Greyling

Cobus Greyling

Chief Evangelist @ HumanFirst. I explore and write about all things at the intersection of AI and language; NLP/NLU/LLM, Chat/Voicebots, CCAI. www.humanfirst.ai