Thing's I've Done in the Past for Money (Greg's Freelancer Journey Part 2)
Everybody starts their freelancer journey from a slightly different place. In this post I will talk about my professional path before embarking on freelancing, and why I decided to embark on the freelancer's journey. Although this is the second blog post of the "Greg's Freelancer Journey" series, we can really think of this post as the "prequel" to the series.
My Academic Path
I began my career in college by studying bioengineering, a choice that was heavily influenced by the career path of my father. My father is a Ph.D. physicist who designs lasers at one of the two main laser manufacturers in Silicon Valley and he's worked there since I was about one year old. My father has been very succesful as a laser engineer and for as long as I can remember, he has been well paid.
So, I grew up believing that if I got a Ph.D. in a STEM field, I would have a stable career as a scientist/engineer and have a comfortable life. Yet after I got my Ph.D. in a STEM field (chemical engineering), my career path was very different than my father's.
Lessons learned: The world is always changing. What worked in a previous generation may not work today.
My First Job
I was extremely lucky in finding my first job out of grad school at a company making software for genomics applications. It was a perfect fit for me: I was able to lead the development of a product based on my graduate research and do experiments to validate the product. It was immensely satisfying to see my graduate work actually being used in the real world and I loved the work I was involved with for the two years I was there. Unfortunately, the company never sold much software--their main source of support was grants from the National Institutes of Health, and once the grants dried up, they had to let go of nearly all of the scientists at the company, including myself.
Lessons learned: Doing a good job and working hard matter, but there are things beyond one's control that mean you cannot necessarily rely on your job being there indefinitely.
My Second Job
I found my next job, as a product manager for a biotech company that served the genomic sequencing market (one of the hottest markets in biotechnology at the moment), through networking at a biotechnology convention in Chicago. At this convention, I stopped by a booth for a company that was founded by two professors from my department at UM and I talked my way into a job as a product manager for the company's best selling product.
After a few months on the job, the company leadership told me that I needed to double the sales of the product I was managing. Since I had no sales and marketing training up until that point (my business training consisted of some technology entrepreneurship classes and some market research consulting experience) and nobody in the company was a good resource (they were all scientists with no sales or marketing experience), I scrambled to learn as much as I could about sales and marketing on my own.
After a few weeks of stumbling around in the dark, I found a style of marketing that was less about "branding" and more about influencing people to take action. Eventually, I came up with a marketing plan that I was sure would increase sales, but I was not given a chance to implement it. After I presented my plan to the company leadership, I was let go the very next day.
Lessons learned: Marketing is important regardless of your industry. Continual learning is crucial in a knowledge-worker economy. Finally, good leaders work with their team to set realistic goals, rather than decreeing goals from above.
My First Entrepreneurial Venture
From my previous two jobs, I became convinced that scientist-led companies don't know how to sell or market effectively, and I believed that I could help. I recruited a friend and together we decided to consult with scientist-led companies to help them increase the effectiveness of their marketing. We called our company Sell Your Science. The venture was short-lived, however, for a few reasons: First, we didn't really know what we were doing; and second, scientists are an extremely skeptical bunch, so without a portfolio of projects that were successful, we had a hard time finding clients willing to work with us.
Lessons learned: Know your target market before investing too much in a venture. Also know your strengths and weaknesses and work with others who complement your strengths and/or mitigate your weaknesses.
Contract Employment at Startups
Following the "failure to launch" of Sell Your Science, my parents convinced me to move back home to Silicon Valley and attempt to resurrect my biotechnology career in San Francisco, the birthplace of biotechnology. It was here that I became familiar with the "postdocalypse," the term given to describe the difficulty of Ph.D. scientists finding jobs in academia, or anywhere else for that matter. I lived in the Bay Area for two years looking for work in biotechnology and the only jobs that I got during this time were a few contract positions at startups. I took each of these contract positions thinking they would lead to something more, but unfortunately they did not. In retrospect, I should have broadened my search to other fields, but I was determined to get a biotech job.
Lessons learned: Know when to give up on an idea. Be open to exploring. Don't get locked into thinking there is only one solution to a problem.
Transition to Data Science
While living in the Bay Area, I had read about the emerging field of data science. It seemed that, in contrast to biotechnology scientists, data scientists were in demand, so I started picking up whatever data science skills I could from online courses. Over the course of about a year, I went through significant data science training (including a fellowship through Insight Data Science) and although I still haven't landed a data science job yet, I am confident that data science will be the foundation of my future career.
Lesson learned: Position yourself to take advantage of changes in the marketplace.
My wife recently joined the faculty at a university in Washington state and was able to use her connections to get me an adjunct faculty position teaching microbiology labs. I just finished the semester a few weeks ago, and let me tell you, I've never worked so hard for so little money. Teaching is a hard job. I have a newfound respect for teachers. Though I enjoyed working with my students and working in the lab, I had a hard time with the mountain of grading to keep up with.
Lesson learned: Teaching is not my calling, but I wouldn't know that if I hadn't tried it out! Sometimes experience is the best teacher.
My Future Career
I've definitely had a nonlinear career path and have learned many difficult lessons. My employment experiences have led me to believe that the traditional model of employment is broken for people like me who don't necessarily fit the mold of a linear career. My current thought is that an entrepreneurial approach to employment (i.e., freelancing) will be a more viable path to career success, but I'll let you know how it goes...Stay tuned for updates!