Tips on making a radical career shift

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 oneΒ  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
  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

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

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.

28 thoughts to “Tips on making a radical career shift”

  1. really inspiring stuff, I myself wanted to something on these lines but had to keep it on hold.
    Plan to do a chain of small fast food stalls sometime in the next few years, would definitley love to have you as advisor.

  2. Very timely indeed. I am making a career change myself.
    Am I cut out for this? Real answer is I don’t know, but most friends say I pretend very well.
    Thank you for putting effort into this.

  3. Good one, particularly,….”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.”

  4. One of my friends is also interesting in becoming a chef when he grows up. Of course, he’s being forced to do something like engineering. I am sure he’ll be pleased to see this. Nice piece.

  5. As I have said before, Bravo!
    Wanted to taste your dream when I was in Bangalore last November..but regreted not making the time for it. Next time for sure! Maybe before I know it, we’ll have a Shiok branch in downtown Chicago.

  6. Hi there ,
    Well read your article and found it very interesting , I am 28 and working in a software development company . Same like you, i had charted out my dreams on paper and just need some time to put my act together . Really a good and practical view of how one could really come up to a decesion and make his or her dreams come true. Appreciate your views very much. Great! Keep up the good work.

  7. Thank you for sharing’s like an answer from GOD. I just shift my career and in the middle of doubt whether I should go back to my profesional world or stay with my new business….Wish you all the best..

  8. Reached here thru Gaurav Sabnis’s blog. Thanks for all the tips and importantly the positiveness that comes out of your words πŸ™‚

  9. Hey Madhu,
    I remember an article of yours on rediff that actually gave me hope that a career in food business in Bangalore (on my own terms) was very much possible.
    Thanks for the nudge.
    Maybe it is time you put dedicate a column of links leading to all the writeups featuring you.

  10. I guess i landed up at this quiet a while since it has been posted, but was so much worth the read. Having myself made a radical career shift from a well paying software job to being an entrepreneur in the social/development sector, where sustenance and money-making is scorned at, let alone perceived possible, i could connect very much with every bit of emotion you have put into those answers. When you sum up the experience by saying “Disruptive, painful, anxiety-laden, thrilling, scary, and yet oh so satisfying too”, i can almost get up for a hi-five..:-)!The rush of emotions is almost like bungee jumping i should say..!

  11. I would like to give you the details of a very good place where people are professionals in handling crowd who would like to change their careers.Its recession and now people are talking about changing careers but we at CAI have track record from 2000 (after the first IT bubble burst)of turning engineers into chefs,IT guys are working on the cruise liners as line cooks, dentists trained by us are in Australia working in Tandoor and dishing out excellent kebabs and need not mention the MBA’s have turned into ice carvers and culinary artists.
    So…………………ppl check it out

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  13. Really nice article to read on.. and the time I have come across it when I’m on a high to do something of my own. I’m just waiting for some more time….

  14. Hey..very nice read.. Was helpful even though I’m not planning a career change, but currently on a sabbatical and contemplating going back to work at the right time.

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