A little over a year ago, I decided to leave behind seven years of work experience in academic libraries and begin a new career in community and marketing in tech. I had no experience with either of these subjects and threw myself into a new career with very little planning and a lot of enthusiasm.
I worked harder than I ever have in my life in order to make the transition successfully, but as the newest member of the Safari Growth Team, I want to share my experiences and what I’ve found useful along the way.
1. Figure out where you excel.
Last spring, I decided to learn Python. I heard from a lot of people that it wasn’t so difficult as a language and that I could probably pick enough up from a book like Introducing Python to work on some projects. I wanted to be fluent in a programming language because I had a general interest in programming and it seemed like the thing to do, so I figured Python was a good place to start.
I was wrong.
I began to play to my strengths and interests by voraciously reading in the fields that seemed most interesting. I consumed books, articles, tweets, MOOCS, and classes on a range of subjects that interested me, from Google Analytics (there’s a free, extremely useful class!) to Project Management (check out Safari’s books on project management.) I eventually stopped consuming sources that seemed like extraneous knowledge that would not drive my career, but I did try to “drink from the firehose” at first, consuming any information that I thought would be useful. Narrowing down my interests was difficult, but directing my knowledge has made my work better.
In addition, knowing what I do well has made it easier to find the bridge from one career to the next and connect the skills I learned in my previous job. Drawing on my learned strengths has allowed me to find analogies where I don’t always see the obvious parallel. For example, I considered my research and ethnography skills to be a skill I would leave in the library and did not initially think they would be useful to my work in tech. As I found myself reading more about user experience, marketing, and community management while picking up more research tasks in my internship, I realized that these skills were not only useful, but highly desired throughout the industry.
2. Find a mentor (or three)
It’s tough to be a woman in tech. Women currently make up 26% of the total computing workforce, and approximately 20% of software developers are women. When I wanted to transition my career, I chanced upon the blog of Diana Kimball, Community Manager at Soundcloud. Diana is a born mentor and writes frequently about the power of mentorship in her own career. Through my conversations with Diana, I found my internship at Mozilla, which helped me cultivate a whole new set of mentors and create even more connections in technology and beyond.
After reading Diana’s blog and researching her work, I wrote her a long email to tell her about my interests, what I wanted in my career, and where I wanted to be in the next year. I asked for advice and mentoring, and she was generous with her time and expertise, meeting with me several times over Skype to talk with me. Sending an introductory email takes guts and a willingness to be rejected, but the payoff can be great. When reaching out, I usually tell the person why I admire them, how I learned about their work, and what I hope to get out of our interaction. I also link to any social media and my linkedin so that they can learn more about me on their own. In addition, followup is key: A few emails back and forth does not make someone your mentor. Relationships (even virtual ones) take time to cultivate, and keeping in touch doesn’t have to be arduous, but it is essential.
If you are a woman looking for mentorship in Free Software, the GNOME Outreach for Women Internship (now called Outreachy) was a massive catalyst for me. The program introduced me to my mentor at Mozilla as well as set me up for success with an internship at a respected FLOSS project. If a paid internship or apprenticeship is not a possibility for you, try to find someone in your field who will help you grow your skills and provide small, directed projects to learn skills and then feature these projects on your blog. Creating a small portfolio of work provides you a place to point potential employers and show your skills.
3. Get over impostor syndrome (but know what you know!)
In Julie Pagano’s amazing talk on impostor syndrome, she makes the distinction between having “impostor syndrome” (thinking you can’t do the task you were hired to do,) versus actually not knowing how to do the work. It’s easy to have impostor syndrome when you start a new career, but keep in mind that you are already in the door, which means that someone had enough faith to hire you.
The first time my supervisor at Mozilla asked me for advice on a project, I researched for a week, created a slideshow, wrote up a proposal, and made several charts and graphs, working late into the night. While my effort was certainly appreciated, it was completely unnecessary. Due to my own insecurity, I had created extra work for myself and others. Julie recommends collaboration as a tool for combating insecurity, and I find that rings true for me as well. If I’m struggling with a task, I like to run it by a colleague or supervisor before I am finished in order to make sure I am on the right track. A little early feedback can go a long way.
And it’s always okay to look up that thing you can never remember.
4. Only you can tell your story
What do you see when you Google yourself? Are your results random? Or do you see a cohesive story that includes your blog or website, photos, your social media presence, and professional information on the front page?
The best early piece of advice I received while trying to find my footing in tech was to build a personal brand. Much like we obsess over SEO in our brand pages, building a personal brand is your way to cultivate your own online persona. You don’t need to tweet 100 times per day or turn into a human spam machine or blog on every topic that comes to mind. Be prudent in your communications, and friendly to all. I use my blog as a way to talk about what I’m reading and what trends I see, as well as to document my professional activities, like talks and classes I’ve given on various topics. I blog maybe once per month, sometimes less, and try to make my posts thoughtful and useful.
About five months into my first position at Mozilla, I went on another job interview. Toward the end, the recruiter asked me, “How did you become so fearless?”
Fearless was not a word I had previously thought of to describe my hodgepodge of experiences, but I was moved by her faith in my skills. Where I saw indecision, she saw a woman unafraid and excited by new possibilities. What seemed to me like random steps became a journey to discover what interests me most, and this interaction has made it easier to tell my story as I move into my new position at Safari. While the boldest risks may not be without worry at first, I find that they nearly always reap the strongest rewards, providing me a wealth of new experiences that make my work an integral part of my happiness.
Thinking of making a career change? Here are some books that have been invaluable to me:
Career Match by Shoya Zichy and Ann Bidou
The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work by Scott Berkun
Cultivating Communities of Practice by Etienne Wenger and Richard McDermott
Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon
Now You’re Thinking: Change Your Thinking… Revolutionize Your Career… Transform Your Life by John Maketa, Heather Ishikawa, Russ Hall, Stewart Emery, Judy Chartrand
Starting Strong: A Mentoring Fable by Lori A Fischler and Lois J. Zachary
I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was: How to discover what you really want and how to get it by Barbara Sher
Strengths Finder 2.0 by the Gallup institute