From Drop-Out to Hospitality to Tech: How and Why I Changed my Career Path (and How You Can Too)
At age 20, I was a landscape architecture student. I had taken a career aptitude test a few months prior, and landscape architecture was one of the top career paths that were recommended to me. I figured that devoting my working life to designing thoughtfully-placed sidewalks and drafting green roofs would be a noble pursuit that would afford me a comfortable life.
A few months later, I found myself with an empty savings account and a maxed out credit card. I carried a heavy feeling of dread knowing that all I had to show for my financial burden was a list of required materials and textbooks with only a fraction of the items checked off.
I was used to working and feeling a sense of control over my life. Prior to my studies, I had washed cars, taught piano, prepared sandwiches, and even worked as an assistant in law firms and my local museum. All the while, I managed to do well in high school and keep up a social life.
In contrast, university seemed like a detriment to my quality of life. I was trapped in a dorm room that kept me from saving money by preparing my own food, I struggled to connect with and relate to my peers, and classes seemed to move agonizingly slow for my active mind.
I was hungry, I was broke, I was bored, and I was dissatisfied.
In typical fashion, I decided that it was time for me to take back control. I craved stimulation, steady income, and a sense of purpose. I recalled the career aptitude test that I had taken. My top result was a tie between landscape architect and chef.
My family owned a restaurant when I was young, and I was always proud of the fact. Before leaving to go to university, I had become a talented home cook, building on generations of my family’s culinary traditions and my own experiments with new techniques and flavors. My father had warned me to stay out of restaurants. He stressed to me that it was best to pursue a career that wouldn’t have such control over my life, but what 20 year old really listens to their parents anyway?
After a successful stage (pronounced “staj” as in French. This is what we call a trial shift in hospitality.), I was offered a position as a line cook in a hospitality group with several James Beard Awards. I was ecstatic.
Within days, I withdrew from my studies, moved out of the dorms, and embarked on the journey of becoming a skilled fine dining cook.
Through half a decade of working both front and back of house to my latest hospitality experience as a wholesale wine sales representative, I was shaped by some incredible mentors who saw potential in me. I developed invaluable skills such as persuasion, poise under pressure, teamwork, respect, honesty, and commitment to excellence in one’s work.
Despite my success, I felt the sense that I had plateaued. I was beginning to doubt my future in the industry. What would be my next move? To manage a venue? To work in importing? To open my own hospitality business?
Trade tensions between the European Union and the United States had already begun to worry those of us who work with wine, but COVID-19 rapidly changed the landscape of hospitality. I soon found myself furloughed and my income decimated. My previous career questions had been replaced with new questions. Am I going to make rent on time? Am I going to permanently lose my job? Am I talking too quietly behind this mask? Why can’t I find yeast or flour anywhere these days?
One afternoon, I found myself catching up with an old friend. We exchanged the typical “what are you doing with your life these days?”, and he revealed that he had jumped from working in construction, learning blacksmithing, and was now studying cyber security. He excitedly told me about the varied jobs in the field, from SOC Analyst to Penetration Tester, and after the call I found myself intrigued.
In the past, I mistakenly had the impression that a successful career in tech was for anti-social savants who felt more comfortable interacting with code than interacting with other humans. After my own research, I came to realize that this broad field, in its essence, is all about the user’s relationship to technology. Humanity is at the core of tech, and tech is at the core of humanity. Despite recent advancements, we are merely at the dawn of the information age. There is still an enormous frontier in human potential that is yet to be explored by innovation in computer science, and I’d like to be a part of this moment in history.
Out of the various disciplines in computer science, I felt naturally drawn to security. I have always had a strong sense of ethics, and I am motivated by knowing that I am working to make a positive difference in the lives of others. It’s cheesy, I know, but making the internet a safer place for users like my friends and family members is a goal that keeps me going. Plus, how many people can claim that they have “hacking” skills? Maybe it’s just my inner 90s kid talking, but doesn’t that sound cool?
The truth is, if you work in hospitality, you already have the soft skills that employers in tech are looking for. Negotiation, collaboration and teamwork, perseverance, communication, creativity, and problem solving (I could go on and on) are all transferable skills that hospitality professionals can bring with them to a new career in information technology. Some things simply cannot be taught; they must be lived through experience.
Moreover, the market for careers in tech is booming, especially in the security sector. This is one of the few career paths in which hiring managers are willing to look beyond the typical requirements of having formal higher education in a relevant subject or years of experience, as long as you present yourself as a self-starter who can respond positively to training and evolve into a valuable and skilled employee.
There are different paths to retraining oneself to enter the world of tech, and I decided to take the route of the tech boot camp. I attended the Louisiana State University Cyber Boot Camp administered by Fullstack Academy. This boot camp was entirely remote, and after 12 weeks I went from a being a novice to being someone who feels comfortable with Linux, Python scripting, and security fundamentals. I also managed to balance having a part-time job and the other demands of life while undertaking this intense program.
Boot camps can be an expensive route. I was able to finance it, but I will end up paying about $15k in total after interest. Given the opportunity cost of spending four to six years in university in order to get a degree (that is, time spent studying while you can be working and making money instead) and the fact that entry-level positions in this field often pay an average of $60k and up, I felt comfortable making such an investment. If you are interested in boot camps, be sure to exhaust any options for financial aid or scholarships. Nowadays, there are ample opportunities for veterans, women, or other underrepresented groups to attend a boot camp at a reduced cost.
I chose the boot camp route because I saw the benefits of an instructor-led learning environment and being part of a community of fellow students and alumni. Fullstack also provides career coaching as part of their program, which I have found to be invaluable for someone who is new to applying for jobs in the tech sector.
Although I do recommend a boot camp, it is entirely possible to learn the necessary skills for a career in tech on your own time through self-study. YouTube, Udemy, Coursera, and other similar resources provide nearly unlimited knowledge on a variety of subjects under the tech umbrella. This route can prove to be more difficult but if you are disciplined and know what your end goal is, you may save yourself a lot of money. Other people have written at length on this subject, and I suggest doing your own research.
I will always look back fondly on my time spent behind the line, by the table, or tasting wine with a client. The hospitality industry gifted me with an abundance of valuable experience. During my time in the business, I experienced immense personal and professional growth that will serve me well no matter where life takes me.
I encourage anyone currently working in hospitality who feels dissatisfied to consider transitioning into a career in information technology. After a bit of dedication in learning the essential technical skills, you may be surprised to see how valuable you become to recruiters and hiring managers. Have faith, and believe in your own potential. There’s no limit to what drive and dedication can do for you.
What I’ve written here is mainly reflection on my own experience. I have not been incentivized to endorse any of the programs or services mentioned in this article. If you have any further questions about this subject or would like to provide feedback on what I discussed here, please contact me on LinkedIn. I wish you great success in whichever path you chose to follow.