Leaving Corporate Life to Become an Independent Consultant

This is the story of Joanne Dong, an independent consultant, currently focused on solving challenging problems in US Healthcare using technology. In this in-depth interview, Joanne and I speak about her journey from growing up in communist China to becoming a consultant and the many pivots she made along the way.

I met Joanne years ago after I saw her speak about Business Architecture. I remember attending that talk with a my colleagues, and all of us left with a dream of one day becoming business architects, as a result of Joanne’s passion for the topic.

At the age of 50, Joanne did something that others often dream about but rarely have the guts to do: she quit her well-paid, comfortable corporate job with no fallback plan!

Since being on her own, Joanne has been wonderfully successful both from financial and personal fulfillment perspectives and have been an inspiration to many of us.

Q. Let’s begin with your beginning– where did you go to school?

A. I actually grew up in communist China and did an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and then a master’s in manufacturing engineering. Both of my parents were professors in China and when I was 16 I chose mechanical engineering, thinking that would be a bit different.

But it turned out I wasn’t interested in mechanical engineering at all – but since I was smart, had a good memory, the system benefited me and I did quite well. I thought I would love being a professor like my parents, so I ended up doing a master’s – but I hated it so much!

When I came to Canada, I did a master’s in mathematics in Regina, Saskatchewan. Then I moved to Toronto and started a PhD right before my daughter was born. And I took a year off. When I went back to continue my PhD, I looked around and saw that so many talented mathematicians were having trouble finding a job.

A friend of mine was in Carlton University at the time and she was studying Information Systems Sciences and she recommended that I apply to their graduate program and study this field.

This was in 1995, before the Internet, and the deadline was in three days. So I quickly completed the application, got reference letters from two professors, and took a Greyhound to Ottawa to submit my application in person.

Q. Oh wow – you actually had to go all the way to Ottawa to give your application?

A. It was before the days of online applications, and the deadline was in a few days. I was a new immigrant at the time and didn’t think of FedEx and express mailing.

Q. So how did it go? I guess you were accepted into the program?

A. This is a funny story that I was told by a young feminist friend as something that I should be proud of. One of the reference letters for my application was from my Computational Complexity Theory class taught by Professor Stephen Cook, who was actually quite famous.

In his class we studied something called Cook’s Theorem and being a recent immigrant, my English was not the best. And at the time I didn’t realize that Cook’s Theorem was actually developed by Professor Cook. I only went to him for a reference because I did very well in his class.

So when I arrived at Carlton University on the Greyhound, I found out I was one day too late after the deadline! Still I was one of those lucky people and I met a professor at Carlton who knew Professor Cook from before. And simply based on that reference letter from Stephen Cook, I was admitted on the spot.

Q. After university you worked at IBM, right? How did that happen?

A. I think that there are angels looking over me throughout my life and career. One was when I was admitted to Carlton University based on my reference letter. Another was getting the job at IBM.

I had applied to IBM when they were doing heavy campus recruiting but I hadn’t heard anything from them. One day I was passing by the student center, and I stopped to just quickly inquire about my IBM application.

The lady at the desk was shocked to hear that I hadn’t been asked for an interview because all the applicants were being interviewed in the last few days and that was the final day. She rushed into the office leaving me there to see what she could do and I was asked to come in for an interview that day!

At that time I had self-cut hair and was wearing second hand jeans and a second hand sweatshirt, with no time to change before the interview. This was the mid-90s when people dressed up for interviews in suits and ties. And here I was in sweatshirt and jeans. My confidence was not high. But at the same time, the rush meant I had no time to be anxious, to worry or to think.

My interview went very well, and I was offered two positions – one in the research labs and another at IBM Global Services. I ended up picking the Global Services role – without much thought, quite randomly.

Q. Tell me about your IBM career? How long were you there?

A. I was at IBM for 12 years. You know, IBM-ers just click. When I meet a former IBM-er, there is always a feeling of Deja Vu. I don’t know if it is because they recruit people with the same mindset or if they reinforce their culture a lot. But I still have such a high respect for IBM. They set a really high bar and I learned so much of my hard skills from them.

Every former IBM-er I’ve ever interacted with had been smart, respectful and highly competent. Even in New York, I worked with a former IBM-er, and the work ethic, the standard of work products and the conscientiousness is simply there.

vI left IBM in 2009 and joined my client at the time, Infrastructure Ontario (IO), after working there as an IBM consultant for 10 months. I had survived breast cancer two years before and thought that I would benefit from a change of pace. I picked up where I left off as an IBM consultant in the area of business process reengineering and improvement and introduced business architecture, a growing field at the time, to the organization.

I worked at IO for four years but somehow felt under-fulfilled both professionally and personally. On January 6, 2014,  I handed my resignation giving my manager four week’s notice. Although I was offered the option of one-year leave of absence, but I declined. I knew in my heart that I needed to do something different.

Q. Tell me a bit more about why you made that decision?

A. I started speaking at business conferences after I left IBM simply because as a speaker, I could attend the conferences for free. I was speaking at a conference in Florida in 2013, shortly before I quit my job, and someone attended my presentation at the conference contacted me for a position in an investment management firm in the Greater New York City area.

I went through a series of very rigorous screening and interviews for that job. Things like personality testing and even the interviewing process took a day with 8 hours of back to back interviews by different teams.

That was actually a life changing experience for me, because through all that testing and interviewing I learned much more about myself. When they offered me that job though, I turned it down. I didn’t want to work full-time for a US based company – my life was in Canada.

But that job offer also gave me a big confidence boost, I knew that there were companies out there who were interested in me. It made me more confident about taking a year off. So beginning of 2014 I quit my job after four years.

Q. What did you do with your year off?

A. I was hoping to write a book on Business Architecture with my year off! But instead I ended up doing a lot research in systems thinking, complexity theory, architecture, and psychology, a field that I have always been interested in especially why humans do what they do and what really motivates them. I also did a lot of reading, both fiction and non-fiction.

Q. How did you get back into the workforce?

A. The investment management firm in the Greater New York City area reached out to me again and offered me a consulting job in New York.

It was great because I could easily travel back and forth from New York and the company paid for my accommodations. It was supposed to be for four months, but then it turned into a two year assignment.

I started in Business Transformation through business architecture and business process redesign roles and eventually worked with the office of the COO.

I finished this assignment summer of 2017 and I was in no rush to find another job. But a few months later, a former IBM-er asked me to join him in another role in the Healthcare Industry in the US.

My interview was five minutes and I’ve been working there until last month.

Q. What did you do in this new role?

A. I was hired to do clinical pathway modeling, which is business process modeling but for processes like if you needed chemotherapy. The medical field is very unlike the financial industry, which is very structured and standardized.

The healthcare IT industry is much more challenging partly due to the complexity of medicine and partly due to the nature that many physicians are self-employed instead of working in a corporate business environment.

I also ended up doing strategic analysis and solving one of the most complex problems that faced health IT for over 25 years,  the healthcare interoperability problem, the holy grail of the healthcare IT industry. The work truly lies at the intersection of business and technology. And I just loved it!

Q. What makes this role so satisfying for you?

A. When I did those personality tests for my previous role, I found that my Archetypes was that I was a creator. In this role, I had a chance to use my creative abilities and it has been highly satisfying.

I had to tap into my creative resources and develop visual explanations that would simplify complex concepts. I did a lot of drawings. I had to analyze a ton of information and do a ton of reading and then represent and visualize information in a simple diagram. That is a very creative process and it is highly satisfying.

I believe in the quote by Edward Tufte: “Confusion and clutter are the failures of design, not the attributes of information”. And now I finally realized my unique talent and value-add to my clients.

Q. What is the downside to being an independent consultant?

A. The lack of job security that a regular corporate job provides especially as I am getting older. I do feel a bit nervous in between work. Even though financially I have no reason to worry, these contracts have been very well paid. I still feel some nervousness.

Q. Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self?

A. I never fully believed in myself when I was younger. And I don’t think I understood myself as well as I could have.

With my upbringing in communist China, personal interests and innate abilities weren’t topics that were in anyone’s mind. So I made a lot of assumptions about myself and I didn’t quite know what I was good at. It turns out that if you don’t know yourself, you tend to not value yourself.

I had major impostor syndrome after getting my mechanical engineering degree. I felt didn’t understand a thing – even though I did well. I started to appreciate my unique talent and my intelligence in my early-40s.

So I think would advise myself to understand myself sooner.

Q. Finally, what advice would you give to someone who wants to do a career change like you and possibly quit their corporate job?

A. I don’t think quitting on the spot is necessarily a good idea! Do the things that you naturally want to do on the side. And give it a few years to see where they lead you.

I paid for my own conferences because I was into business architecture. And it was one of my talks on business architecture that was seen by the Head of Business Architecture and Transformation that led me to my first consulting role.

Putting yourself out there is not easy. There are social barriers and also not everyone will like what you have to say. But having that creative outlet is very rewarding.

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Published by Pvot40

I blog about people who are approaching or living midlife to the fullest.

2 thoughts on “Leaving Corporate Life to Become an Independent Consultant

  1. Excellent interview. Sometimes, it isn’t until mid-life that we’re able to define and ask for what we want. Having the courage and commitment to create a job where others can benefit from you hard-earned experience is always a commendable endevor.


    1. I agree. In Joanne’s case, I couldn’t believe she felt “stupid” even after completing 3 Master’s degrees. I think real confidence in oneself can also grown in midlife.


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