My Experience as a Career Switcher in Tech
Have you ever tried to write with your other hand? The non-dominant one? Your instincts are all off, and words that you produce look out of shape and unfamiliar. No matter how accustomed you are to an action, performing it in a different context can throw you completely off balance. I find that this is particularly true when you switch careers.
Let me briefly take the opportunity to introduce myself. I’m Jessica Cregg, LaunchDarkly’s newest Developer Advocate. Having recently come onboard earlier this month, I’m absolutely thrilled to be working with such an excellent team supporting a genuinely exciting product strategy. Getting into Developer Relations has been a journey particularly close to my own heart as the discipline really sits central to the intersection of my past experiences as a storyteller and my recent passion for coding and all things tech.
I count myself as one of the many people who found their way into tech through non-traditional means. After earning my degree in Literature and carving out a career in PR and Marketing, I found myself unable to shake the urge to venture into development. I wanted to make things. But I had no idea how.
I've always loved computers. The way they do precisely what you tell them to do is equal parts infuriating and inspiring. Writing code has always appealed to me in the same way that running, yoga, and playing an instrument have. Improvement is dependent on your ability to bet on your own capacity for development—a value that can vary daily depending on so many contributing factors. The idea of going into a field where you're constantly challenging your potential filled me with excitement.
Making a plan
In a bid to move towards a field that I've admired for years, I decided to take a pragmatic approach. I sat down and took stock of what I'd learned to date. If you're thinking about taking your career in a different direction, here are some thought starters for making a personal skills audit:
- Which tasks do you do regularly as part of your current role?
- What do these tasks involve?
- How do these tasks track against the requirements of the position that you want to land?
Let's take the example of sending emails for work. Fairly fundamental in a lot of desk-based roles, right? But if you take a step back and analyze the component actions in this task, you might find that you're skilled at taking a brief, interrogating its aims, and translating that into a roadmap.
After conducting a thorough skills audit—taking stock of the aptitudes that I'd developed in my career to date—I then looked to the future. I identified the competencies that I wanted to build on. Next, taking both lists, I matched these against a list of different roles in tech to devise a route that might lead me to a position that suits my unique makeup.
Completing a series of exercises of this kind led me towards client-facing roles in tech. I was used to running weekly status calls, producing activity reports, and managing campaign activity. I decided to use the skills I'd acquired so far to my advantage, so I took up a position as a Product Solutions Engineer acting as a Product Manager within my team.
Establishing a foundation in Product Management was exciting. It gave me a fundamental understanding of the scientific process behind bringing a successful product to life. But it didn't satisfy my desire for building in the way that I thought it would. It quenched my curiosity in a way that only made me more curious. I found myself wanting to understand exactly what I was asking of the engineers I was working with. I couldn't just stick to my lane. Instead, I wanted to understand what the code was doing and how its execution impacted the wider ecosystem of what I was working on.
After six months in the role, I realized that to become fulfilled at work I'd need to venture into the unknown and, instead of relying on the things I knew how to do, develop a whole new set of skills. The fear that I had to overcome involved removing the personal limitations I'd put on myself. I didn't think that I was smart enough to be able to code. Looking at legacy code scared the heck out of me. I let this fear build up and form an entire web of limitations that weren't actually indicative of my potential.
Limiting beliefs have a habit of making you think that the things you've never done before are the same as things that you could never do. These are not the same, and convincing ourselves of this is not easy. Just because you've never done something doesn't make it something you can never do.
Entering into a new industry with the added benefit of some professional experience can be a real advantage. You're coming to the table with a set of cutlery already in your hands. This can feel like leverage right up until the point at which you're faced with a utensil that you've never seen before. Next thing you know, you're questioning your entire ability to problem solve.
When you head into a new field, the instinctive actions that once felt like second nature are open to an entirely new line of questioning. Are you sure that your method is the best way to tackle the problem? Do people usually schedule meetings to discuss things like this? Are you speaking to yourself using rhetorical questions again?
The shock of a new environment can very easily join forces with your pre-existing fears to create a sizable opponent.
Set yourself up for success
The key to overcoming hurdles is adopting a growth mindset. First introduced by psychologist and Stanford University professor, Dr. Carol Dweck, in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” a growth mindset is a belief that you can determine your success, not through innate talent, but via ongoing personal development. Adopting this way of thinking requires you to stop viewing your attributes like static values and instead recognize them for what they are— muscles that you've yet to develop.
Here are a few ways that you can bring the principles of growth mindset adoption into your daily habits:
- Introduce the word "yet" into your vocabulary - There are two different ways to get stuck when it comes to learning to code. Something can be hard because it's new or something can be hard because it's complex. When you're starting out, the two can be almost interchangeable at every avenue. Stay the course. This unfamiliarity is very temporary, and before you know it, you'll be able to decipher between the two types of tricky. Remember that very few things are achievable on your first go. At any point where you find yourself stumped by a concept, add the word “yet” as a way of challenging your limiting beliefs and remember that your inexperience is temporary.
- Prioritize learning - It can be easy to spend much of your time worrying about the things you can't do. The biggest concept that I've had to get used to in tech is accepting that you'll never know everything. You simply can't. Every day, new frameworks are being devised, and services rolled out, and concepts that are in their infancy can become a core competency in months. Make peace with the unknown, and instead of becoming intimidated by everything you don't know, try to use the ever-changing current to power you forward.
- Establish your role models - Treading new paths can feel lonely, and it's easy to feel lost when you've got no one to guide you. Oftentimes, you'll feel overwhelmed at the insurmountable hill of knowledge that you've got to climb. To stay motivated, make sure you look for your role models. Do some research and find other people who've travelled a similar route to yours. Exposing yourself to their stories and words of wisdom will pay dividends when you find yourself hitting a hurdle.
- Embrace the inevitability of things going wrong - Progress is never linear. There will be some days where you doubt that you're even making any progress at all. Remember that encountering plateaus and getting things wrong is not only natural but essential to your growth. Own the failures and see them as opportunities to improve. The phrase “fake it till you make it” has had far too much air-time. Embracing a growth mindset requires transparency and, above all else, authenticity. Trying to gloss over your mistakes will only hurt you in the long run. Being honest with yourself and those around you about the things that you find difficult is a practice that will make you better at what you do.
- Celebrate your wins - Don't forget to note your milestones and shout about them. Acknowledging your accomplishments helps you to tap into your brain's rewards-based system. Not only is it important to take the time to take stock and acknowledge how far you have come, but celebrating your achievements helps you to associate the work you're undertaking with long-term improvement. It won't just help you feel good about yourself; it'll aid you in building up endurance for the tough times ahead.
Keep in mind that overcoming your fears and switching fields can be challenging. You're learning to be ambidextrous, and that's hard. Remember that you're capable of more than you think you are. It's ok that you're not there. Just make sure to add that all-important three-letter word. Yet.
If you’d like to develop your growth mindset and work for a company voted one of the best places to work for 2020, check out our open opportunities.