Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines and is the author of two published titles on Amazon.
Starting from the Bottom
I was sitting on a makeshift seat made of concrete, its gray epoxy paint peeling off in darker bits, and a 40-tonner centralized air-conditioning unit the size of a sedan behind me blasting away. It was just another day at the one-story annex building—what had officially been my “office” for more than a year, and where the maintenance men, wearing their distinctive blue polo shirts, hung around.
Not only were we officially, sociologically, and financially differentiated from the regular employees of the agency (a government-owned entity which will remain unnamed); but we were physically separated from them in an almost upper-deck/lower-deck fashion.
We, the maintenance men (each of us had either an engineering license or more than a decade of experience), were lower deck people. We were at the bottom of the agency’s hierarchy. And in terms of age and experience, you could say that it was I who was underneath everyone else—I started from the very bottom.
The way outsourced employees in the Philippines, which are analogous to “temps” in the U.S., get compensated is not something to be proud of. The statutory minimum for paid time off in the country stands at 5 paid leaves a year, all convertible to cash—and I got exactly that during my first year on the job working for what's called a "labor contractor." The job was also mandatory overtime, with 12-hour workdays and 6-day workweeks. Calculating my base pay, I realized that my salary was just barely above minimum wage. This should tell you how “useful” my mechanical engineering degree-plus-license was with zero years of experience.
Apart from the long hours and physically-taxing work, the job wasn’t so bad. I got to learn something new every day, and the agency employees from the main building were kind people. But I wanted to be them so bad. I got impatient. Sitting at that cold concrete slab on a Monday morning, I decided to disrupt my career. The applications I’d sent to the agency for a regular position ended up nowhere, and I figured it was time for me to look elsewhere.
Once I quit, I decided to take up law. But no single part of me wanted to be a full-time student. I dreaded the idea of taking from my mother’s income for another 4-5 years. The 22 years of complete financial dependence had ended where it had to, and so I could support a portion of my expenses from law school, I decided to take on a part-time job from a local BPO firm.
Any Part-time Jobs Out There?
Depending on who you talk to, startups either get a bad rap for their loose decorum or they get praised for their fun-loving attitude. Almost five years has passed since my last day working for the “startup BPO for startups” and my assessment of startups is that you can’t judge every single other one by working for just one. Each startup, including startup BPOs, has its own work culture, and its values are often defined by its founders and key leaders.
The startup that I worked for perpetuated a none-too-serious attitude with work. Contemporary music was playing from the overhead speakers, and in between calls with customers, seasoned veterans would dance along and casually walk over to other cubicle sections inside the small office space for gossip and pretense. The carefree, approachable, and friendly attitude started from the top—supervisors and managers even flinched at the mere mention of “Sir” or “Ma’am.”
Did I find the place which was my supposed first stop at a new path? Was I consciously thinking about my ongoing career pivot while I was working at this startup?
To be candid, I hardly thought about what my new job would do to jumpstart my new career. Throughout my whole time there, I only saw it as a means to get a steady paycheck to spend for law books (or at least book imitations), full text copies of Philippine case law, and most especially for my per diem of coffee and candy bars.
The disruption that was in my head was that I was going to forget everything I learned from five years of engineering school and my year-and-a-half working as a maintenance man for the agency. I was going to follow in the footsteps of those who realized they absolutely hated their first major and so took their chances at a more demanding one—law, if there was no more psychologically-consuming postgraduate that ever existed.
Little did I know that my time at the startup for startups would help widen my perspective and give me enough confidence to try new things. Before that job, I didn’t know I had it in me to close more phone orders as a part-timer than my full-timer counterparts did. I also didn’t know I had it in me to exceed the quota by a hundred percent while still having time leftover to read legal cases. I won employee-of-the-month twice—one as a customer service rep and one as a lead generator—and I qualified for every performance bonus.
My part-time job, which eventually matured into a regular 8-hour job, was an eye-opener. And although I quit it prematurely, I was beginning to see endless possibilities.
(Also, I got paid more to do less, on top of more paid time off, health insurance and other cool benefits—which really made me despise the country's labor contractor system and my old job back at the agency.)
Here’s an early warning for those of you who wish to disrupt your current career paths—be prepared for false hopes.
Recall that I sent out a few job applications to the agency—for a job that promised stability, 30 paid leaves a year, a monthly transportation allowance worth a part-timer’s wage, two different retirement funds, bonuses throughout the whole year, 13th and 14th month pay, a steady and significant pay increase, a straightforward career trajectory—and I finally heard back.
They were hiring for entry-level positions, according to my old supervisor. I was quick to resurface my application, I heard some positive feedback, and there was a possibility that I’d be interviewed again. There were many open positions due to the many people retiring nationwide, and I was highly optimistic that I’d get hired for any one of the positions I applied for.
That’s when I quit the startup job. During my last few weeks there, I was squeezing every minute of my lunch break to submit additional documents to the agency. I had a very good feeling that I was wrong about my mistrust towards them when I first left. I was now attempting a glorious return.
But as you can guess from the title of this section, I didn’t get the job. It only sunk in once neither my old boss nor anyone from the agency replied to any of my texts anymore. I waited weeks for some progress. I was willing to be unemployed for a little bit, if it meant that I’d get a fresh start at a very lucrative job. But no returns ever came—I was swimming in mud, a failure, and learning a hard lesson to never quit an existing job unless you had a legitimate job offer right in front of you.
We attach so much meaning and personal identification to our livelihood, that once it’s taken away from us, we're reduced to empty shells.
I did feel like an empty shell for a lot of those three months when I was searching for a new job while searching for myself. Law school was still there to occupy me, but with the summer break coming, there was about to be no “work” to fill in my working hours. My career was disrupted, but not in the way I’d liked. To have a paying job was more preferred, of course, but because I trusted my gut and quit my job prematurely, my career suddenly came to a standstill.
Punching Above My Weight
One fateful afternoon as I sipped awful coffee at a downtown café that I could afford from what remained of my last paycheck, I clicked on a job posting for a position that I was clearly unqualified for (or so I thought).
Years later, I would realize that job qualifications and requirements on an online job posting are essentially “wish lists” for the company looking for the right candidate, in an effort to scare off those who aren’t serious enough, and to narrow down their search to save lost time.
Desperate, and confident that I at least ticked a third of the boxes, I sent in my application.
I got a response. I received an email, and it had this positive tone. Minutes later, I’d get a call from the recruiter. And a few days later, I was interviewing with the hiring manager inside the lobby of the city’s most posh hotel, which was a three-star.
My career was moving forward again. It felt like a dead end for a while there—there were no other good jobs around our poor city, and if there were ever any, they were already taken by people who knew the right people in high places. This was the spark I needed to get my career moving again, all while trying to attend to my postgraduate studies (which I strongly refused to take on full-time despite several interventions).
Fast-forward a week later, I was hired as the Compliance, Security, and Facilities Supervisor for a mid-sized BPO outfit that had its headquarters in Manila. They were setting up shop in my poor city of Dumaguete, and one of the company execs jokingly told me that I was going to undergo “baptism by fire” with all the changes and from-the-ground-up things that needed to get done.
And she was right. So much needed to be done to bring their new office to life. It was an intensely challenging, stressful (so stressful that I thought of quitting three months in), but fulfilling job. Perhaps the career disruption that I so badly needed was stretching my own perceived limits. I had never been someone’s supervisor or lead before—now there were eight people under my direct command, on top of three floors of office space to look after.
This was indeed the disruptive career move that I needed, despite the fact that the job physically and mentally consumed me. I had only realized how much it took from my life, when, the day after my last working day there, this weight from my shoulders and chest suddenly disappeared. The weight of my responsibilities was too much for me to bear—being a top performer, I had built more and more trust among my colleagues but at the same time stretched myself too thin.
Once I quit, I felt a physiological change (not just because I decided to go vegan, which was short-lived). But I guess that’s what happens when you punch above your weight class—you might think you’re mentally prepared, but it’s something that you’re just not ready for, physically.
If there was one thing my old boss did wrong that somewhat hurt the company, it was sending me off to the regional office of this government agency located in Mactan, Cebu. That day, after finishing my errands, I met up with an old friend to visit the regionally-famous I.T. Park.
Little did I know that I would soon work my next full-time job at the IT Park a few months later.
Somehow, that night, sipping coffee and munching on a pastry I hadn’t heard of before that evening, I decided that Cebu was my next stop. A week later, I expanded my job search to include Cebu—and most especially companies that operated in the IT Park. I did send some applications to non-IT park firms, but I only ever entertained responses from them if the offer was good.
Relocating to a new city can be terrifying. It’s exciting—knowing new places, passing new roads, frequenting new coffee shops—but the thought of starting from scratch from a place hundreds of miles from home, with no relatives and hardly any acquaintances nearby, was scary. But at that point, I had already learned that every disruptive career move holds some element of doubt. The new job was going to be a bit more different than the last, and it barely resembled the first job I ever had.
The previous job still had some blue collar left in it, with the manual fixes that had to be done because of tight budgets, but this job—although it didn’t pay significantly more than the one before it—was a significant move towards a fully white-collar job.
The first job I ever had was a blue-collar job—both the uniform and job formula said so. This new job was, by all accounts, a corporate job with corporate hours and corporate expectations. It felt so new to me, despite the expertise from all my previous jobs (including the startup one) carrying over to help me in this new endeavor. At first, I found it a little bit irritating that my co-workers kept mentioning the predecessor to my predecessor (the latter was given the boot), but I eventually accepted that there was nothing I could do to keep them from mentioning her—she was just this very cool person who had once held my job for a significant time and was good at it. I had to come to terms with her enigma.
But all adjustments aside, I woke up one day to realize that I could barely find any semblance from my current job compared to my very first job. It just hit me in a way that I was overwhelmed with this feeling that I had come so far. I went through false hopes and punching above my weight, applied to hundreds of Cebu jobs (I forgot to mention that part), got rejected in multiple final interviews, and had now landed a role that was such a sweet spot for me.
The full story is yet to be written at this point, but having worked there now for more time than my last two jobs combined—I can say that it’s awesome being right where I’m at.
The S Curve
I was inspired to write this piece because I came across this Harvard Business Review (HBR) video about “The S Curve.” In Whitney Johnson’s HBR article, the S Curve “describes the trajectory that people move along as they develop competence in a new domain of expertise.”
“Growth is slow and effortful at the outset…That phase is followed by a rapid upward progress as people acquire new skills and overcome setbacks…At the peak is mastery—when work becomes easier, but the curve flattens because there is little left to learn.”
She says that once you reach mastery, “it’s time to jump to the bottom of a new S Curve, put in the effort, and experience the thrill of climbing again.” To summarize the phases of the career S-Curve:
- Phase 1, slow growth and max effort: “Launch Point”
- Phase 2, rapid upward progress: “Sweet Spot”
- Phase 3, work becomes easier: “Peak”
The S Curve has been a way for me to rationalize all the strange, yet timely career disruptions I had early in my career. From working an awful labor contractor job, to working part-time, to moving up, and moving sideways, I find solace in the S Curve—and maybe it will once again lead me towards my next stop.
© 2022 Greg de la Cruz