How I came to developing
Giving up managing servers for managing servers
I have led a dual life, one as a successful chef with a long career as a professional, achieving what seemed like all my goals, yet there were a bunch of negatives. I enjoyed what I did immensely. I love to cook, I love to be busy, I like to take the lead and accomplish projects. I’m very good at organization and details all of these things have made it easy to be successful in the restaurant business. The problem was it was all very consuming. It is physically and mentally challenging to operate 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week and for multiple decades. I did it generally with a smile on my face.
Then it started to change. We had always wanted it all — careers, family, a normal life. These things don’t coexist in the restaurant industry. You become married to your job. It’s difficult to spend 90 percent of your waking hours at or preoccupied with work and be a successful husband and father. I am sure there are people who accomplish this, but I surely wasn’t one of them.
When we made a huge change in life direction and uprooted from our home to move because of a fantastic opportunity to co-own and operate a business, it all unraveled. I was fortunate during my career to have worked for some great owner-operators who were looking out for my best interests: I was allowed to take vacations, not work too many insane hours, and was encouraged to have a life outside of work. That all changed when I became a restaurant owner. When you take on the responsibilities of ownership, no one looks out for your best interests. You are the person responsible to make sure that all of your employees aren’t killing themselves; you need to be the last person you think about; and your business really becomes your life.
Restaurants have a remarkable record of failure, primarily because it’s a very complicated business model. There a very low margins, very high turnover of staff, and everything is perishable, so unless you or your staff are not always on point, your margins can shrink to the point where you are operating at a loss extremely quickly. My restaurant opened at the very worst time possible, second quarter of 2008. It was bad because the cost to build it was hyperinflated as the economy was bustling and had peaked. Rent was at a premium and labor was hard to find because employment was readily available and quality employees were a scarce commodity.
The other shoe dropped. By the end of 2008, the economy tanked, people were not feeling good about their financial situations, and the restaurant industry was suffering because people just weren’t going out. It was devastating for all small businesses.
I had rolled the dice opening a place. After so many years of preparing for my moment to own a business, thinking there is no possible curveball that I wasn’t prepared for, and now this. The restaurant survived, barely, and after a couple very painful years took care of itself, but I didn’t. The damage had been done; to me it was immeasurable. I went years without a paycheck but worse, I had forsaken my family, missed every possible big moment of my daughter’s early childhood. I had given up everything that I had worked so hard for. It was crushing.
During the course of the struggles with the business, we as a family surrendered so much, and the future wasn’t looking any brighter. Due to the changing media landscape, my journalist wife was unable to re-establish her career. She had to reinvented herself by enrolling in a programming boot camp. She was both thrilled and overwhelmed, and being incredible intelligent and tenacious, she did it She developed a whole new skill set and had opened up new career opportunities for herself. I was so proud of her.
She went on to attend a entrepreneur incubator, which lead to her founding her own business, and suggested that after all the damage that the restaurant had laid on me that maybe I could follow suit. After a few months of thinking about this suggestion I began to investigate the possibility.
I began reading and completing online tutorials, starting with Codecademy and Treehouse. I got a “degree” from Mongo University. I found the experience exhilarating and rewarding. After six months of preparation I enrolled in the same boot camp my wife attended.
I found myself in way over my head. The pace was very brisk. we went from “hello world” to object-oriented programming to web frameworks in weeks. To make matters worse, I was a very proud individual who had always been the person you came to for answers, so naturally I couldn’t possibly be the one who need to ask all the questions. It was kind of a disaster. If I had the opportunity to have a redo anything, I would have approached it differently, but like all things in life you learn and move on. The most important lesson from this experience was that is it taught me how to learn the right way and be able to find answers.
After completing my training I had to decide what to do with this new skill. I spent a number of months looking at job postings and I found, shockingly, that few were looking for someone with zero experience and a limited set of skills. There was language in the job requirements that I didn’t even recognize like, (x) number of years experience developing web applications and features using any of the following: .Net, C#, SQL, ASP.NET, XML Bonus: AngularJS, NodeJS, ReactJS, Elasticsearch, SCRUM, Puppet etc. What have I done? I applied to a bunch of jobs, which was brutal for me – over a number of decades I have had six jobs total after applying to six jobs total. I always landed an interview and an offer on the spot. So it came as quite a blow to not even be contacted. Occasionally I would be rejected, sometime nicely, but generally I wouldn’t hear anything.
Eventually I applied to a very well-known tech company. I had a phone interview. They sent me a weekend technical assignment to complete (boy, did I mess that up), but I managed to get a second interview, this time with the CEO of the company. Later I realized it was because I was a curiosity; he wanted to find out why someone so late in a career would do a 180 degree into something so foreign. Instead of a job offer, he gave me some advice. He said that I should always continue learning and that I should find a way to mesh my experience from my previous career with my new profession. He asked me to think about all of the aspects of restaurant industry that could benefit from a technological reboot. I left this interview with a whole new outlook on my career. I’d go back to business ownership, but do it completely different this time.
The company I co-founded with my wife that does exactly what that CEO suggested – helping operators in the restaurant and hospitality business fix chronic problems using technology. I also develop voice applications that can open up ways to promote businesses and give new channels for customers to interact with brands.
We’re pioneering new ways to use very new technology. It’s scary for the companies we’re trying to sell to. It’s scary for us to again be dependent on only what our company can produce.
It’s the start of a new chapter.
Chuck LaPress is co-founder and lead developer for Bev Labs, a creative technology agency and Amazon Alexa development partner that builds conversational experiences for leading brands in the food & beverage, wellness, hospitality, and media industries.