This article is a brushed-up transcript of a talk I gave on February 21, 2023, at PyCon Namibia. I decided to convert it into a blog post because I am a generous queen and so more people can benefit from it.
You know who I'm jealous of? It's those who grew up knowing exactly what they wanted to be. You know, the ones who would confidently declare, "I'm going to be a doctor, a musician, a dancer, or a fashion designer, etc!", and then actually went on to do just that. Meanwhile, the rest of us just go with the flow, until we stumble upon something that clicks.
If you’re like the rest of us and still trying to figure it all out, I’m here to tell you that it’s totally okay! In fact, I'd argue that we're meant to go with the flow because maturing and ageing allow us to learn more about ourselves and the world around us. This knowledge then helps us discover where we'll thrive, what we enjoy, and what's most important to us.
This article is for you if you're just starting out in tech or thinking about making a switch, and you’re wondering where to start or how to proceed. As a serial transitioner myself, I’ve had my fair share of transitions: from cloud engineer, to frontend engineer, to technical writer, to dev advocacy, so I have quite some transitioning experience. And here’s how what I would advise:
1) Make peace with change
So, you’re starting out in tech, and you’re wondering: “how do I even break in? where should I start? What if I start a job and a year into it, I find out that’s not where my strength and passions lie? Or I find out that the monetary return of continuing on that path is not worth it? What do I do? I would have wasted a year at a job that’s not meant for me, and then I’d probably have to stay stuck in it”.
First off, let's get one thing straight: career changes are not easy. They're scary and nerve-wracking. But guess what? You can do it! It may be a long and tedious process, but you can do it if you put your mind to it and take the necessary steps to prepare. And the truth is, you’ll never be starting from scratch. You’ll be starting over with what you now know and all the experience you’ve gained. As for the question of where to start, I’d say start from anywhere and figure things out as you go. As a popular Instagram reel says, (excuse my French) ‘The more you fuck around, the more you find out’. To find out, you’ve got to experiment, and so it’s okay if plans change.
Need some inspiration? Check out Chieh Huang's TedX talk. This guy went from being an English teacher to a lawyer to a video game creator to a toilet paper salesman - all in 15 years!
2) Network with people already occupying the roles you’re trying to transition into (preferably people who just transitioned too)
Every time I’ve wanted to transition into a new role, one of the first things I do is reach out to people who currently hold the positions I’m hoping to transition into. Thanks to social media (especially Twitter and LinkedIn) you can easily find such people in abundance. Just search the title of the role you’re hoping to transition into (e.g developer advocate) and people with the same titles in their profiles will pop up, and you can start narrowing it down from there.
Then, ask a lot of questions. A person who asks questions never gets lost. And here are some of the questions you should be asking:
- Are there any specific communities or resources you recommend for people who are interested in learning more about this industry and connecting with professionals in the field?
- What advice do you have for people looking to transition into this field from another industry?
- What are some of the things you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out in this role or industry?
- What kind of training or education is typically required for entry-level positions in this field?
- How did you land your current role? What challenges did you encounter and what lessons did you learn from your interviewing experience?
While doing this, remember that most people have busy schedules, and be respectful of their time. One of my icks is when people enter my DMs with just 'hello or hi, I’d like to talk to you' and nothing else. Don’t be that person. When you reach out to these people on social media, state your name, why you’re DMing them, and any questions you have. Be polite and go straight to the point.
3) Come up with a learning plan
Hopefully, from networking and asking questions, you now know what is required of a newbie in your desired role or industry. It's now time to assess your skill gaps:
- What are the current skills you have that are relevant to the role or industry you’re transitioning to?
- What new skills do you need to learn in order to break into the industry?
- Is there any training or education that would be beneficial to you in making this transition? Do you need to return to school or obtain a certification?
One common misconception is that you must have everything figured out before making a move. The truth is that you will never have everything figured out, and that is perfectly fine. Making a career change is a process that will involve some trial and error. You don't have to know everything; you just need to know enough to get your foot in the door. Everything else can be learned on the job. There's a popular saying that if you want to succeed, you should limit yourself.
So, focus on what you need to learn, create a timetable, and set a deadline for yourself. You don't intend to learn forever, so aim to start applying for jobs in six months or a year.
4) Don’t quit your job just yet
Don't quit your current job unless you have benefactors or have saved up just enough runway for 6 months or a year, depending on how long you think the transition will take. I understand that transitioning and learning can be time-consuming and exhausting. However, you will have bills to pay while transitioning, so stay put. Find a way to balance showing up for your current job with learning the skills required for your desired role. One or two hours per day is sufficient.
5) Build/contribute to meaningful projects
“The difference between you and those who seem to be talented at something is practice; a lot of it”.
You need to put whatever you learn to work; build projects. That’s why I advise people to go for learning resources that are assignment or project-based. This is especially important if you're transitioning to a new career with no experience. You can build a stand-out portfolio of work that showcases your abilities to potential employers by contributing to meaningful projects that are modelled after real-world tasks.
For example, if you're transitioning to frontend engineering, build a website for a non-profit organization. If you're hoping to become a data analyst, analyze real-world data and draw insights from it. When I was trying to transition into technical writing, I contributed some open-source documentation, and did sample revamps of some doc pages, applying style guides to them, and explaining why I made the changes that I made. Those are the types of tasks that technical writers are expected to carry out, so I did something similar to demonstrate my abilities.
6) Be visible: Learn in public
“Opportunity doesn’t always come to the most qualified, but to the most assumed qualified”
As you embark on transitioning into a new career, talk about it. How will people know to refer or tell you about opportunities that may suit you if they don't know what you do?
I can tell you a thousand stories about people who got jobs and access to new opportunities simply by learning in public and sharing. Talk about new things you learn. Talk about the challenges you’ve faced and how you overcame them, or if you haven’t overcome them, then ask for solutions.
Share on social media (Twitter, LinkedIn), share in communities to which you belong, and so on. You never know who might be watching.
7) Applying for jobs
"Highlight your abilities, not your experience."
When you have learned enough and have built some projects, it's time to let the cat out of the bag. Revamp your resume, focusing on highlighting your abilities, not your experience. How? Explain the strengths you've mastered due to your previous experience and how those strengths can be uniquely applied to your desired role. Look at the expected responsibilities on each opening you're applying to and list out how the abilities you've developed over time can be applied to it.
You can showcase your uniqueness with a personal statement on your resume that goes something like this:
Title: Customer Support Personnel with over 3 Years of Experience, Now Looking to Land Their First Frontend Engineering Role.
As someone who has interacted with customers on a daily basis for over 3 years, I understand their needs, concerns, and pain points. Therefore, I believe that my background in customer support will help me design interfaces that are intuitive, easy to use, and meet the needs of our customers. I am also skilled at taking complex technical concepts and explaining them in simple, easy-to-understand language, which is an important skill for any engineer.
In addition, my experience in customer support has given me a strong work ethic, a commitment to excellence, and a willingness to go above and beyond to meet the needs of our customers. I am confident that these traits will serve me well in my new role as a frontend engineer.
Also, remember that it is a numbers game. Apply to as many jobs as you can; but don't apply to too many that you're overwhelmed and don't have the time to tailor your application to each opening.
Conclusion: Career transitions are possible
It’ll require some work, and some discomfort, but you can do it. And, it's okay to take a break and do something to recharge when you feel overwhelmed. But don't lose sight of the prize.
I've just tried to summarize the career transitioning tips that have worked for me as a serial transitioner. Your journey may not be the same as another mine, so it’s up to you to own your journey.1