Wednesday, January 05, 2005

I’ve often said I’m not one for resolutions. If there’s no need for a major life change, setting resolutions is just a hollow exercise. This year, I think it’s a worthy task, as I feel the time for a big career related change is drawing near. To justify my ramblings, I first have to provide some background.

I entered the “real” world after graduating from business school in 1995. My first full-time job after college was with a boutique financial advisory firm in Toronto. With a staff of less than 10, the company was tiny compared to most of the other firms with which I interviewed. Though my official title was “Investment Analyst”, the scope of my duties was unusually broad for someone fresh out of school. Essentially, I was an apprentice to the company’s managing partner, a brilliant, yet maddeningly sociopathic eccentric who once led the economic research department of a large Toronto brokerage. My boss was an advocate of the “trial by fire” management style. He believed the way to tap one’s true potential was to set the bar quite high and assign challenging tasks with significant responsibilities.

And so began my own “trial”. In addition to my primary job of analysing potential equity investments for the firm’s few clients, I oversaw the publication of myriad economic research reports, drafted a comprehensive study on brand management for a major Canadian law firm, worked on the installation and operation of the company’s computer network and databases, and personally managed a $4 million equity account to a 38% return in 1997.

All in all, it was a tumultuous couple of years. Despite my varied accomplishments, I felt I was spreading myself too thinly; by working for such a small company I wasn’t able to acquire tangible depth in any particular functional area of the business. So, I resigned abruptly, and took a few months off for some much needed rest, and to get some perspective on what sorts of opportunities I might pursue.

In the Spring of ’98, I was toying with the idea of switching my career path from financial services to information technology. The seemingly endless high-paying opportunities in the IT field intrigued me, but getting one’s foot in the door was a major hurdle, particularly in Canada. Employers there were looking strictly for people with degrees in computer science, along with several years of experience in a variety of technologies. My business degree, coupled with the programming languages I taught myself, simply didn’t cut it.

South of the border, the IT market was obviously much larger, and American employers seemed to appreciate a business background as an attractive substitute for hard technical skills. After exhausting my prospects in Canada, I set out to find a company in the US that would sponsor me for a work visa, offer some rigorous training, and put me to work. Luckily, the Y2K bug scare was in full swing, and firms were hiring people like mad to help fix their systems before the impending “Apocalypse”. In July ’98, I was hired by a consulting company in Kentucky to help their clients deal with the crisis.

Y2K came and went with a whimper. Since then, I have accumulated a wealth of valuable technical experience, and have become a certified Oracle database developer. For the past 4 years I’ve been working as a systems analyst and consultant for Medisolution, a medical software company in Phoenix, Arizona, which is, ironically, a subsidiary of one of Canada’s largest blue chip companies. Go figure.

My particular area of expertise is the design and implementation of medical billing systems for dialysis laboratories. It’s a rather arcane specialty, one with which I am rapidly tiring. The challenges of the job mainly involve implementing systems changes required to satisfy the whims of bureaucrats running the behemoth federal Medicare and state Medicaid programs. The work is neither rewarding nor meaningful to me.

Because I allowed myself to fall into a line of work so esoteric, I ultimately failed to address what I felt was lacking in my previous career: a chance to develop some depth in other functional areas of business management. To date, I’ve never led a team, I’ve never hired anyone, I’ve never managed a P&L, I’ve never presented a sales demo (let alone sat in on one), I’ve never learned to apply basic day-to-day accounting principles, I’ve never done a cash flow analysis, and I’ve never had to scrounge for financing. Frankly, I’ve never really done anything of value from a management standpoint. Nearly 10 years after graduating from Canada’s top undergraduate business program, I’m still practically an empty vessel.

I’ve been exploring my career options passively for the past year, and the time has come to narrow my research and firm things up. When I vacillate between getting a new job, or going to grad school, or starting a business, my wife tells me, “You’re not in Canada any more. This is America! It’s time to think big and take some chances!” I know she’s right. Her words make me bristle as I realize my cautious thinking and reserved sense of prudence are signs that the “Canada” in me is still alive and kicking.

It’s from this perspective that I craft my resolutions for 2005: I firmly resolve that this year I will come up with a concrete plan to put my career on a new and exciting course. I may not actually execute the plan this year (no point quitting before my 401K is fully vested), but at least I’ll be ready when I do. Time to beat the “Canada” out of me for good.