Part I: A Career Change

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

If you were to ask a dozen professionals why they decided to make a career change, chances are that you would receive a dozen different answers. Many have changed because they are not happy in their current profession, some change to make the world a better place, and many more change to increase their salary. My career change to the Tech and Computer Science industry, oddly enough, came about in thanks to a bottle of 1999 Tenuta San Guido “Sassicaia” Super Tuscan.

I love wine. Ever since I was old enough to appreciate it, I have always had a fascination with the history of viticulture. It seems that every wine region in the world has a storied history, each more romantic than the next. The many farmers and vintners across the world gush about how their fruit tell a story. The story of a struggling season, or a plentiful harvest, or the history of a family who have farmed this specific small patch of land for generations.

And I have always loved stories. My first degree was in English with a focus on Creative Writing (I wanted to be the next Kerouac, but it turns out I don’t like jazz enough). When I graduated the first time, there were not many jobs for an aspiring writer. So naturally I fell in to what I knew, what had just paid my way through school. Bartending.

While behind the bar you are a part-time therapist, part-time baby-sitter, full-time entertainer, and of course the Artful Dodger when it comes to sales. Thus, to keep up I began my studies about my product, specifically wine. This lead me around the world (figuratively not literally). I fell in love with the rustic reds of Rhone, dreamt of Riesling from the Rhein, and chased carafes of Champagne. Ultimately I moved in to a role as a Sommelier. It was my second full-cellar program where I met the bottle that would motivate me to change my career.

“…watch them gaze through this looking glass that was laser focused on 20th century Tuscany.”

Tuesday nights are the graveyard shifts in fine dining. Rarely do people go out for big experiences on a Tuesday. Some restaurants even choose not to open during these early week shifts, that way they do not waste the labor. So if you are open on the slow days, you are staffed to reflect it. A skeleton crew for a graveyard shift.

Thus it is not uncommon to see managers serving tables, chefs doing dishes, hostesses manning the fryer (ok I have never actually seen this, but it has to have happened somewhere). This Tuesday night was particularly quite. I encouraged my server to break down the back and get out early. I would watch the floor for the last few minutes of the shift.

If you have known anyone in the Service Industry, or watched any of the movies on the subject matter, you have undoubtedly heard it’s favorite trope: “The table that comes in five minutes before closing”. Those of us that have been in the Service Industry for awhile don’t mind the late tables. We are open after all, and it is our job to take care of our guests. So when the inevitable last minute table arrived to my half-shut down restaurant that Tuesday, I rolled out the red carpet.

If you do not know the story of the Super Tuscan red wine Sassicaia, I recommend reading in to it. I believe it truly is one of the great wine stories out there. Consequently, that Tuesday night, I just happened to have a bottle of the 1999 vintage sitting in my (well, the restaurant’s) cellar. The cool damp cellar was my favorite place to spend time, and situated in a prominent spot was the bottle of Sassicaia. It always elicited a lingering glance from me, coupled with the math of how many weeks I would have to go without eating to afford it.

But I could not help myself! This was a truly exciting bottle, it had such a great story to share! So I was elated when our late night Tuesday table ordered the bottle. What a pleasant surprise to end the night on, and of course, the sales helped out too.

I retrieved, opened, and decanted the bottle for them. Two parents and their young son. They weren’t particularly talkative, and that was fine. Not every table wanted to hear a man in a suit talk about wine. Besides, if any wine could tell its own story it was this Sassicaia.

It was tasted, approved and poured. I gracefully retreated to my corner of the dining room to let them enjoy their experience in peace. But really, and more selfishly, to secretly observe their journey. I wanted to watch them enjoy this beautiful piece of work, watch them gaze through this looking glass that was laser focused on 20th century Tuscany.

But alas, I was treated to something else entirely. I witnessed an eager story waiting to be told wrapped up without being so much as read. I watched in muted abject despair as the lady poured her diet coke into her wine glass, completely topping it off. She had created something I never thought I would, or wanted to, see: a Sassicaia highball. Silently, I grieved for the grapes whose stories were now lost to the aspartame void .

“But that night the first domino in a short line that would lead me from the Service Industry to Tech fell.”

Let me clear something up. I have no space in my life for people who are snobs about wine. Wine needs to be presented as approachable. It deserves to be shared with all who have interest in it. The story of the evolution of wine is irrevocably intertwined with the story of humanity. Everyone has a right to taste the fruits (pun intended) of our labor, our history, our inheritance. But, that night, money changed hands and that bottle of 1999 Sassicaia was theirs to do with as they pleased. It is not, nor ever has been, my place or inclination, to judge people for how they enjoy their food or drink.

Still there was a certain level of heartbreak over this wine. It was akin to an estranged lover cutting of all communication with you and disappearing from your life like the marine layer retreating in the shadow of the sunrise. Hard to prove that they were ever there, though you want to believe they were. An ache. A desire. A longing you do not know quite how to process, and not even sure you would, if you did. I searched for the cork after the table had left. A reminder to keep close, a memorial of a friend. But it was on the child’s plate. Covered in polpette sauce.

Sometimes the universe sends you an unmistakable sign. A nudge that it is time to move on. If, or how, we listen to these universal breadcrumbs is up to us. I won’t embellish and say that this one incident alone was all the motivation I needed to make my career change. But that night the first domino in a short line that would lead me from the Service Industry to Tech fell. My story in restaurants, like the bottle of Sassicaia’s, had wrapped up.

This is where the story leaves the romance of a restaurant. I traded my wine key for a keyboard, my suit and tie for textbooks and blue-blockers. Tech and programming had always been a passionate hobby for me. I had built countless computers, taught myself a few different programming languages, designed websites, built blogs, and written scripts for everything from automating my morning routine to causing mischief with my roommates computer over the LAN. But I wanted more, so I strapped on my bartender shoes for one last curtain call, and went back to school to learn what Computer Science really was all about.

There is not big lesson here. No plot point or greater narrative. The decision to move on from my Service Industry career started because an over priced bottle of wine got some diet coke in it.

But I am finding that the romance that gives wine and fine dining its mystique also exists in the world of Tech. The design of the terraced vineyards of the Mosel has haunting echoes to the relationship between D.F.S. and the graph data structure. Old code doesn’t age as well as wine, but it lets us see and learn from those that came before. Much in the way that old wine tells the story of the generations of farmers who sweated the land it was grown upon. Tech, and code, will take us to Mars and beyond, and wine will continue it’s epic and endless chronicle of humankind and the Earth.

My previous career taught me a lot. I will always be grateful for the leadership experience, business acumen, and communication skills I honed during my time in the Service Industry. But I am incalculably more excited for my career in Tech and Computer Science. I am excited to continue learning. I am excited to explore and surpass the limits modern technology. I am excited to share my insights, my experiences, my perspective, and by far most importantly of all: I am excited to share what not to mix with a nice bottle of wine.

(It’s diet coke. Please don’t do it.)

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