.Life After Tech

Easy, no. Empowering, yes

For increasing numbers of tech industry employees, changing jobs or careers isn’t an option. It’s a necessity. Multiple sources report that tech job cuts in the greater Bay Area so far in 2023 “have already topped the total for all of 2022.”

From January through April, tech companies announced plans to cut more than 12,000 Bay Area jobs, these same sources state. Some of those laid off find new jobs in the tech world relatively easily. But some—if not many—are choosing to follow the leads of those who have already made the leap from tech to new careers. Here are some of those leaders’ stories:

United Dumplings opened its first restaurant in October 2020, at the height of the pandemic. So the risk tolerance co-owner Julia Zhu Olson developed in her time working in the tech industry for a venture investment firm served her well, she said. United Dumplings now has locations in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, plus two in San Francisco.

Olson loved math as a child, which was likely genetic. Her grandfather was the coach of the Chinese math team. But she also loved making things. After leaving the venture investment world, she got an MBA from UCLA, and in 2013 started an e-commerce business selling watches. Even that, though, didn’t satisfy her desire to directly interact with people. 

“I got addicted to customer service and solving problems [in my tech life],” she said. And risky as the restaurant business is, she realized that she had a unique idea: combining classic Chinese street food, dumplings, with a fusion attitude toward the food, mixing flavors and ingredients from other cultures. United Dumplings, despite its opening timing, was an instant success.

Olson still describes herself as a “tech and touch” person. She has used her tech skills to create an inviting website, and marketed United Dumplings very visibly on the internet, as opposed to depending on passersby to attract customers. “We have been emphasizing branding from the beginning,” she said.

But the real satisfaction now comes from seeing her customers being immersed in the “arc of their lives,” as she said, and, of course, making dumplings.

From Cal’s help desk, to computer science at San Jose State, earning a B.S. in computer information systems, completing a software development internship at NASA in Palo Alto, then 14 years at AT&T, Fern Stroud spent a large part of her life in the tech world. “I started in testing and development, and went into project and program management,” Stroud said. As part of that journey, she gained experience in data center content build-outs, along with digital advertising. 

All this, she said, served her well, when in 2010, she evolved the concept for the Black Vines Festival, which she described as “bridging the gap between art, music and Black-owned wineries/vintners in the Bay Area, aimed at bringing the community together in a positive and uplifting setting.” The festival was a success, and celebrated its 12th year last February. 

At the start, Stroud was still working at her tech job. But as she developed her partnership with WineDirect, the all-in-one commerce platform for wineries to start, manage and grow their direct-to-consumer business, she spent more and more time on Black Vines, transitioning to managing it full-time during the pandemic. 

WineDirect, she said, helps her growing number of Black wineries and vintners with “360-degree support and data digital tools.” This, along with Black Vines, is all in aid of building a community that provides a space for the wineries to be “highlighted and elevated,” she said.

Stroud noted that she started her venture with “a little bit of a cushion” gained from her years in high-paying tech work. As valuable, though, was her program management background, where she had to to “figure out ways to communicate the need, and understand ways to motivate people.”

Common Ground Spirits partners Julian Peebles and Tory Brown have a foot in both tech and terroir. Peebles is still the VP of a tech company, having transitioned from engineer into management. Brown has transitioned to helping grow Berkeley-based Common Ground full-time. Founded in 2020, the company makes gin and is aging its first bourbon offerings.

Peebles and Brown met at Bay Networks (now Nortel). They discovered a common interest in craft spirits, and, after researching a number of possible business ventures, decided the creation of a Black-owned distillery, one that would “help people come together and get to know each other for who they are,” was the choice, said Brown.

Some of the skills they’ve acquired in tech work aid in managing Common Ground. “Experience in customer-facing roles is helpful, as is the follow-through from tech support work,” said Peebles. He also cited the usefulness in creating profit-and-loss statements, something he’s done for management teams.

“Time management,” added Brown, who said he doesn’t miss the pressure-driven atmosphere of his former job. Lack of systems redundancies meant he often got panicked calls saying, “We’re losing a million dollars a minute!” But it taught him resiliency.

Peebles still enjoys solving problems, and helping other team members achieve their goals. But he looks forward to the day when Common Ground can be his primary passion as well.

Ken Murch grew up with PCs and the internet. He took database classes in high school and then at UC Berkeley, moving on to internships at Silicon Valley start-ups. “I saw it as a fast way to pick up skills, one unique to the Bay Area,” he said. One internship was with Movoxx, a SMS (short messaging service) marketing company, then another with executive compensation company Equilar, where he did data-scraping.

Full-time employment came with MindJet (now part of Corel) as a business analyst, then job review website Glassdoor, and then mobile event technology provider DoubleDutch (acquired in 2019 by Cvent). In the latter positions, he was in sales operations.

“I got to try a lot of difficult things,” Murch said. “Failure was not the intention, but [the work] was high risk. Working for a small company opened up a lot of growth opportunities.” In working with salespeople, he, as an introvert, learned to open up. 

But eventually he felt uncomfortable with pre-profit money going into luxurious perks. In 2016, he left DoubleDutch, completed an online MBA, took two years out to travel the world, and with a friend from university, founded Berkeley Standard, an international trading company in auto parts.

With Berkeley Standard, Murch uses elements of his past tech work to market and outsource, and said his experience “dealing with uncertainty” has been valuable.  

All those interviewed were asked what advice they had for anyone considering making the same kind of change they have. 

“Save a lot of money, and be prepared to live on very little at first. Pick the right opportunities. A side gig helps,” said Ken Murch. Also get used to a varied workload, and going from a structured environment to one that can be very unstructured.

“Be passionate—and do your research,” said Julian Peebles. “If you’re going into a venture with someone else, it should be someone you like and respect, so you can listen to each other’s ideas.”

“Understand brand awareness,” said Tory Brown. There’s still a lot of truth in the old saying, “Find a need and fill it.”

“Figure out what tickles you. [If you love it], you have a chance to make all the obstacles work,” said Julia Zhu Olson.

“You don’t have to dive in,” advised Fern Stroud. “Go volunteer somewhere; learn the ropes. Then take the leap.”

As companies such as  Amazon (18,000 layoffs), Microsoft (10,000 layoffs), Salesforce (8,000 layoffs) and Google (12,000 layoffs) continue to announce cuts, joining Snap, Twitter and of course Meta, which cut 11,000 jobs in November, and on May 1, announced plans to cut “at least” another 1,100 Bay Area jobs, many are asking, “Should I stay or should I go?” 

The stories cited here demonstrate going is possible—with a plan, a cash cushion and a personal passion.

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