Rafael Knuth's Learning Sabbatical

Can you tell me more about your career? What made you decide to take time off for self-led learning?

In 1992, I entered the job market and landed a job as an advertising copywriter for McDonald’s. I was tasked with ideating radio, TV and print advertisements to curb burger, fries and soft drink sales. 

The internet did not exist in the public domain back then, and my first laptop was actually a mechanical typewriter. Around 2000, I became a freelance marketing manager, working for small and mid sized businesses. At that time, my English was not good enough to work for companies outside of my home country, Germany.

Fast forward 10 years. I was still working as a marketing guy, yet after years of self-study, my English became workable. I managed to acquire some of the largest US based IT and software companies as my clients, and in 2013, I started teaching myself to code. 

Back then, I was increasingly worried that as a technology illiterate, I might be flushed out of the job market in the near future. 

Now, after a year-long learning sabbatical, I’m bootstrapping a data literacy consultancy, catering to large enterprises around the globe. I teach business users how to work with Excel in ways they haven’t seen before. Plus, I teach them how to code and work with data in a utility scale environment.

How did you structure your learning sabbatical? 

I spent about 12 months on learning. I focused primarily on mastering:

  • Excel & Power BI advanced features
  • Python in conjunction with Pandas
  • Anaconda Jupyter Notebooks

In addition to that, I learned the fundamentals of:

  • Math, Probability & Statistics
  • Statistical Machine Learning

I am now in the process of mastering:

  • Querying SQL server
  • Using Linux Command Line Interface
  • Apache Hadoop, primarily Pig, Hive and Impala

By the end of my sabbatical, I had sufficient skills under my belt to apply for an entry level Data Analyst opening. But I thought, “But what’s the point of taking a job with 40k in annual salary or less?”. 

I realized that it would be far more lucrative to blend the skills I already acquired over 25 years in marketing with those I recently learned.

As a copywriter, I learned to write with clarity. “Why not start teaching business users how to become data literate and monetize my learning experience?”.

Did everything go according to plan? 

As a data literacy consultant, my daily rates are now 100% higher compared to those in my previous freelance marketing manager role. 

Having made the career transition myself, I can speak from personal experience what it means to undergo a digital transformation. I can empathize with people whose jobs are at risk due to their insufficient skills in a technology centric future.

Digital transformation is not about opening loft office spaces with colorful bean bags and playing table football games between casual work engagements -  leaving anyone who is not cool enough outside. It’s about making tough choices and putting in a lot of work over an extended period of time.

What’s your advice to others thinking about a learning sabbatical? 

If you are contemplating taking a full year learning sabbatical, consider this:

  • Opportunity costs: I turned down a whole year’s project worth north of $200,000 USD
  • Costs of living: I cut my personal expenses from $60,000 USD to $20,000 USD annually
  • Social costs: My environment neither comprehended nor supported my decision, such as my back-then-financée. Luckily, I kept the dog

The number one question you need to ask yourself: 

What monetizable problem solving skills can you realistically acquire?

Setting the goal to become a data scientist is too generic. Besides that, a 12 month sabbatical won’t get you there anyways. Instead, ask yourself:

“What problems do I want to be able to solve, once I finish my learning sabbatical?”

In order to answer that question, you have to go out and talk to people. You need to understand what pain points your potential employer or customer has before you start. Reverse engineer from there:

"What are the minimum viable skills to get the job done?"

A 12 month sabbatical sounds like a lot. But, boy, time flies. I can tell you that. You can waste a lot of time on learning things you will never need in your entire life. Then ask yourself:

“Is it feasible for me to acquire the skills needed to solve that problem?” 

Again, talk to people, this time to those, who already have those skills under their belt. How did they learn them? Last:

“How much money can I make?”

I borrowed this thought process from a book: “Good to Great” by James C. Collins. The rationale is that there has to be:

  • demand for what you have to offer
  • you have to be good at it
  • and it needs to be potentially profitable

You can’t compromise on any of these. For example, it does not really make sense to invest in building up skills for an overcrowded market - demand is there, but you can barely monetize your skills because of cut-throat competition.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

Tens of thousands of people are losing their jobs because they lack sufficient technology and data skills. I am on a mission to transform the way business users work, just as I transformed the way I work and do business. If I am capable of making this transition, so can anyone else.

Feel free to reach out to me via email rafael@knuthconcepts.com or via Linkedin

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