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How I Changed My Career

This is the process I used during my career change – as you’ll see, it was not a straight line form A to B. I’m sure this is typical of any career change example – life is full of unexpected turns which you’ll have to deal with during your career change.

How I planned my career change:

1. What do I like doing (at work, and elsewhere)

2. What do I consider myself good at? Was this what my employers considered me good at too? How could I measure it?

3. What would I really like to know about?

4. In what type of careers might these things that I want to know, like doing, and am good at doing, be considered “key skills” and so enable me to earn a living doing what I enjoy for the foreseeable future?

4. How could I get from this career to one of those?

5. What training would I need, if any?

6. How long would it take?

7. How much would it cost?

8. How would I pay for it?

9. Where could I do it?

At first I started listing out all the operating systems I knew and the software packages I could use, the programming languages, electronics, electrical wiring for houses and heavy plant and machinery as in a gold mine, basic motor mechanics, etc, etc. I added in all the transferable skills, communicating in spoken and written english, working with people at all levels of an organization, working with people from different cultures, project management, people management, self management, time management…

Looking at the long list, it hit me that what I was writing was not what the core of what I do is all about. What did I talk about to my friends outside of work – the people who didn’t have the same type of job as I had – who didn’t care about the relative merits of Pascal versus C, Unix versus Solaris versus Linux, which project management methodology was most marketable on my CV, or whatever it was that occupied my IT career head space back then. What I spoke about was none of these – it was about fixing things, and improving how things were engineered.

I am good at fixing things – that was the main skill, knowledge, talent, ability required in my IT career – whether it was repairing the electronics of a dumb terminal (my first job), writing code in two different languages, to run on two different computer platforms, and making the cables, to interface two “incompatible” pieces of software, or reconfiguring the network to enable two companies using different operating systems and services to work together. I like finding out how things worked, especially by “trial and error” experiments, using logic. I like knowing how things work, and being able to understand what might make them fail, and how to prevent the failure. I like figuring out why something isn’t working, fixing it so it works again, and if possible modifying it so that it doesn’t break again (in the same way!). I like getting things that have never been put together before to work, to do something that was not expected to be possible, for a lot less than was projected to be spent, in a simpler, more elegant way than was imagined. I like discovering. I am interested in biology, life in all it’s remarkable sizes and forms, how it works, grows, develops, and why it fails. I’m interested in complexity, if and how it can be understood, manipulated, controlled.

I want to learn more about biology, and I want to help discover the answers to the many open questions in biology. As the biotech industry was already experiencing explosive growth with the human genome project, and in fact was going to be the driving force of computer technology advancement, I could forsee that biotech was going to go through a similar explosion to the computer industry over the past twenty years, but likely to be bigger, more changing of society, and longer lasting exponential growth, so the salaries are going to rise, and rise, and rise…

Man proposes, God disposes. The best laid plans…

I had minimal debt, a well paid job at Sun Microsystems with the flexibility to work-from-anywhere and manage my own schedule. I was living in Utrecht in the Netherlands, but could move anywhere in the EU with out any problem (as an Irish citizen), to the USA with a little paperwork (work visa, etc) which the company would mostly handle, to New Zealand (where I had been granted residency in 2000), to Canada (where my father was a resident), to South Africa (where I was born), or any one of the other countries where Sun had a local office. The world was practically my oyster, and the future looked very bright.

I tried to transition while continuing to work for Sun. Sun was in those days (and may still be for all I know – but I fear it has forever lost the naive trust and loyalty it’s employees felt at the time) a fantastic place to work. It enabled it’s employees to design their own career path, and facilitated their personal growth, through training, mentoring, and a culture of self improvement. I had wanted to work there for years, and was delighted when they purchased Cobalt. I chose a job (after the acquisition of Cobalt by Sun) that involving the type of work I enjoyed – proactive troubleshooting, testing and improving quality of anything that was to be integrated into Sun’s internal global network, be it an application, browser upgrade, reconfiguration, or hardware change. I started working from home, found some balance in my life, and started enjoying my work again.

I investigated universities and courses on offer in Holland, England, Scotland, Ireland, the USA, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Many were expensive, or I was not eligible. I considered writing the SAT, A levels or the Irish leaving certificate exams to gain college entry. I narrowed my options down to 4 universities. University college, Utrecht, Dundee University, Trinity College, Dublin, or the National University of Ireland, Galway. In the end it was my desire to live in Ireland, my love of Galway, my friend Bill who had recently moved to Galway, the Mature Students Access course, and the very general nature of the biotech degree at NUIG, that together overwhelmingly won the day.

I moved back to Ireland, and started studying for a bachelors degree in Biotechnology at NUIG. I had vague plans of getting my degree, and perhaps a postgraduate qualification in bio-informatics (or some other IT and biology bridging skill), and staying on at Sun. I imagined my share options recovering in value a few years down the line, my highly marketable technology bridging skills making me a valuable resource, and my work being interesting and varied, on the cutting edge of the most exciting developments in both fields.

But Sun changed, following the fashion of the rest of the crashing IT industry, went though structural and managerial reorganizations, rounds of redundancies. Both my academic and work performances were less than I had hoped, due to too many compromises trying to balance my time between the two. I needed more time for study, and could take the financial hit of a lower salary, so I went part time – to a 3 day week. Two months later, during my end of second year exams, Sun made me redundant in it’s third (but not final) round of layoffs.

I had to change my tack slightly – I took a summer job (originally planned purely to satisfy my scientific curiosity – now also to get a bit of extra cash) in the NCBES and fell in love with research. I got a part time job dong “computer stuff” for the duration of my degree, worked over the next summer as a UREKA student researcher, and then decided to do a PhD at REMEDI.

What are my future plans? Doing what I’m most interested in – finding out how genes are regulated during development, differentiation, senescence, apoptosis, disease and degeneration. Can we manipulate the cell so that it stays “young” forever? What can we learn from the differences between humans and other organisms in terms of physiology, genetics, gene regulation, development, germ line maintenance, stem cells? Can we use the understanding of these differences to prevent disease and degeneration? Can we use this knowledge to cure diseases, improve defense against infection? Can we use this knowledge to co-exist and symbiose with the rest of life on this planet? Can we mimic and exploit the remarkable ability of living organisms to manufacture the incredible array of useful materials – seashell ceramics, limpet superglue, geko climbing shoes, vitamin producing gut bacteria, cancer killing viruses specific to the individuals cancer, own stem cell manipulation to grow new organs, bones, limbs, natural ecosystem farming – all at ambient or body temperature, without the need for intense pressure or harsh chemical treatments? Can we change the way we make things, so that we sustain and improve the quality of the planet for all life, while maintaining the ability to have all the advantages of modern technology? Biology has the answers, and I want to be one of the army of scientists who are learning from her, a cog in the wheel of true progress. I want to make the future the fantastic science fiction vision in my head.


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