Second Career: From IT to Landscaping

encore careersWhy would a high-achieving, heavy hitter leave the money and perks that go with a job at a brand-name IT firm to work two part-time jobs that offer a fraction of the money and almost none of the recognition? It comes down to work-life balance.

Encore careers–second careers that folks typically choose later in life–often don't pay as much as whatever preceded them. But they usually offer more happiness, less stress and a better quality of life, not to mention a level of satisfaction that can elude people in the careers they chose in their callow youth.

Kimberly Smith found just such an encore career; this is how she did it.

Fast Pace, High Stress-Life in the IT Lane

Here was a typical day, or series of days, in Smith's life as a Washington, D.C.- based consultant at Oracle:

One Friday afternoon, she walked into a client's office for a routine check-in and the client, a VP at a telecom company, asked her to take a drive with him; Smith obliged. When they arrived at their destination, another of the telecom's D.C. offices, an irate executive vice president met them and immediately laid into Smith in a public hallway about the problems he was having with Oracle. It seems the wrong emails were being sent to the wrong clients, a major technical error that was making Oracle's client look bad.

Smith went into high-gear crisis mode. "The client was having problems with Oracle Corporation–products, education, technical support, everything. Even though there was no contract in place for consulting services, I knew we had to do fast triage. I was not worried about getting paid. I was worried about helping the client."

She started making calls at 5:00 and by 5:30 had three of her best consultants on-site, working on the problem. They worked non-stop for 36 straight hours. By Monday morning there were ten Oracle staffers on-site at the telecom company and the problem was identified and solved. It turned out the issue had nothing to do with Oracle but with custom software written by a different company.

The Perks to Power

Three weeks later, Smith turned the crisis into a $1.2 million dollar consulting contract and a $1.8 million dollar products contract. She got glory and respect for a job well done, but was that fair compensation for the stress she sustained over that weekend?

"I had a love affair with the fast-paced nature and the travel perks of my job," says Smith, 50, now a landscape designer and busy volunteer.

While consulting for Oracle she spent 80 percent of her time on the road, specializing in large scale program management and crisis clean-up. "Have you seen that movie with George Clooney, Up in the Air? (Check out A Guy Who's Really Up In the Air). Well, that was basically my life while I worked at Oracle," Smith says.

"I Was Never a Computer Person"

Smith says that she was never a computer person; she never craved the newest gadget or gizmo. She got into the industry because she loved the pace and professionalism. "It is not only fast, but there is a real entrepreneurial spirit that goes along with IT. I loved that ability to, if you see a problem, just go and get it done."

Smith enjoyed the challenges of constantly working with new and different clients. And while the travel perks were not the reason she signed on with Oracle, they were definitely one of the reasons she stayed. "I would get on a United Airlines flight to wherever and the flight attendants would know me by name. One time I flew to a six-week vacation on Air New Zealand and the flight crew presented me with a very nice bottle of wine because I was such a good customer and a VIP traveler. "

Wear and Tear

But Smith never liked the backstabbing she saw around her. "It really was a competitive environment. People did underhanded things to get ahead," she recalls.

Additionally, the travel eventually began to wear on her. "It's hard to have a committed relationship because you travel all the time. When friends or family suggest a trip, you have no desire to travel; all you want to do is stay home and veg out on the sofa," says Smith.

The growing dissatisfaction hit a critical level when she lost three family members in six months and still couldn't break away from work. "I had missed a relative's funeral because I was too busy in Birmingham, Alabama, working with a client, to fly home and be with my family."

It wasn't long after this happened that Smith hit a wall. She took six weeks off to rest, relax and get her head straight. During that sojourn she had the revelation that often leads to encore careers.

"I was sitting in the Auckland airport on a layover between Fiji and Queensland. I was watching CNBC and there was Oracle, on the trading ticker running along the bottom of the screen," she recalls. "I watched that ticker and said to myself, 'I don't have to do this.' I realized that my priorities were so mixed up and that I had to get them in order."

The Exit

Smith returned to the states determined to leave Oracle, but with no firm plan beyond that. She spent a year decompressing. "I used to just go to Cosi and read all day." It gave her downtime and the slower pace she craved, but eventually it was too much of a change in the opposite direction.

After a year of doing nothing, Smith got the itch to work in IT again. She thought she was being more cautious this time around. She researched companies to see where they were heading before she committed to working anywhere. Ultimately she took a job with "I thought at the time it would be the next big Oracle," she says.

After seven months at Inktomi, Smith remembered why she had left Oracle. One year and two months later, she left IT for good. "I honored my commitments, left and never looked back."

The Next Move

Ready for something completely different, she decided to try her hand at stone sculpture and landscape design. "They sort of go together, if you think about it," Smith points out.

In her late 40's at this point, Smith went to the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC, to learn about stone sculpture, and to nearby George Washington University for landscape design. She says, "This was going to be my career now and how I would make my money."

Smith says she enjoys the job she landed after finishing school, as a landscape designer for high-end clients. Still residing in her lake-front home in Falls Church, VA, just outside of Washington, D.C., Smith began donating more and more of her time to her neighborhood and her community, the Mason District of Falls Church. Smith's first stint as a volunteer within her community was as a Board member for her neighborhood. (Don't miss How Volunteering Can Lead to a Job.) Once upon that Board, Smith took a real interest in the neighborhood Security Committee that ran the Neighborhood Watch program and helped maintain the safety of residents and public spaces, five beaches among them. As part of this picturesque community in Falls Church, there is a neighborhood garden with trails to walk, benches for reflection and nature watching, and a pond for birds to bath in. Because of her new found love as a landscape designer, Smith took a special interest in her neighborhood's "secret garden" and made it her personal project to renovate it for the benefit of all around her. Along the way, she began donating more and more of her time to her community, both as a board member and the head of the security committee, and the leader who pushed to have a face lift done on the community garden. She redesigned the landscaping for the entire garden and got a $5,000 county grant to help cover the costs of the renovations.

She also decided to get involved in local politics. Initially she worked for a few local politicians as a volunteer campaign coordinator. It offered some of the high energy and opportunity to work with different people that she'd had at Oracle, but in a more controllable way. She quickly became a go-to leader of the pack and eventually agreed to work as the campaign manager for Sandy Evans, who is running in a special school board election in Fairfax, VA. this spring. "The school board election is non-partisan; it's more about qualifications and experience."

The politics has now eclipsed the landscaping in her schedule.

"I still have a handful of landscape clients that I do small projects for but that has become more secondary at this point," she explains. She isn't making anywhere near what she brought in at Oracle but, "Landscaping provides a small income and when you put that together with the stipend from the political work, you get enough."


Smith has had to make adjustments to accommodate her encore career, but the control she's gained over her life is a worthwhile trade-off.

She explains, "I like all the people I am working with and there is a common cause there. I don't feel like anyone is trying to take me out at the knees. My quality of life is better and I am no longer in survival mode. I like the creative outlet because it is all about problem solving. While the paychecks are not as good as they were in IT, and I do miss the perks of the IT job, I have my friends and my family back. I wouldn't change anything."

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