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A Framework for Changing Your Career

by Dan Pickett

Let’s be honest. When Monday comes, are you excited to go to work? If you’re like the majority of Americans today (52.3% according to a 2014 Forbes Article), you’re unhappy at work, and you’re reading this article because you’re ready for something new. The prospect of changing careers, though, can be a daunting and downright scary thing to consider. With a project so complex and with the stakes so high, it can you leave you feeling paralyzed and unsure where to start. What if I told you that it doesn’t have to be that way? Together, let’s boil the process of shifting careers, or really learning anything new, down to ten, simple steps.

Identify the Big Why

Sure, everyone these days wants a bigger salary or more flexibility in their job. The question is, what will a bigger salary enable you to accomplish? Specifically, what will more flexibility do for your lifestyle? When pursuing a career change, start with why. Ask yourself why at least 5 times, and identify what values or beliefs are driving this decision. Be honest with yourself, and get deep enough to isolate the emotional needs driving the decision. Write them down. Having these reasons handy will keep you motivated when the going gets tough.

Embrace the Discomfort of Being “New” at Something

There’s a widely known phenomenon when you’re learning something new known as Imposter Syndrome. In a nutshell, when you’re a beginner, you feel psychologically like a fraud, or someone that is not worthy of the skill you’re trying to learn, So, things are going to get a little uncomfortable for a while. That discomfort is where the magic happens! 

I have a 2 year old daughter now that loves to ask questions. "Why is the sky blue?" "Why is it raining?” I freaking love these questions, by the way, but that’s not the point. Do you think she cares about what I think of her because she doesn’t know the answer to these questions? Heck no, she just has that amazing, childlike curiosity that fuels her desire to learn. If you can establish child like curiosity, defeat imposter syndrome, and leave the ego at the door, you’re going to be more receptive to learning the skills you need to achieve your goal. Just remember, everyone is new at something once in their lives, and someone was there to help them learn what they needed. That brings us to our next step…

Find a Role Model

One of my favorite things about reading biographies is learning from the triumphs mistakes of great individuals. Is there someone that you admire in the new line of work you’re considering? What did they do? What did it take? What do they wish they did differently? Do you have a friend of family member in the industry? What are the common mistakes you see beginners make? What are the principles that guide them and help them to be successful? Buy them lunch or dinner and pick their brain. You’re bound to find some time-saving strategies on learning what you need. Once you have that data, you can…

Deconstruct

What are the building blocks? If you think about the career you’re building towards, what are the, as Tim Ferriss puts it, the Lego blocks that you should start with. In Computer Science, we call this decomposing the problem. Breaking things down to their simplest parts will give you the chapters of the larger book you’re trying to get through. 

Trim the Fat

Like most software developers, I spent most of my 4 year degree learning stuff I would never use in the real world. There’s a lot of pruning you can do. The Pareto principal tells us that oftentimes 80% of the result comes from 20% of the effort. With the help of a role model or a coach, you can work to identify the needle-moving skills you need to learn to land your first job in your new career. Once you’ve boiled things down, it’s time to…

Build the Right Chronology

If you learn things out of order and take on a more complex task than what your current capabilities can handle, you’re more likely to become frustrated and quit. For example, in software, you want to learn a programming language like JavaScript before you try to use a framework like ReactJS. Additionally, you can’t build a database-backed application without knowing a bit of Structured Query Language (SQL). Learning concepts out of order is the single largest reason I’ve seen aspiring developers stall out and quit, so find the right order of operations!

Learn by Doing

Anders Ericsson has focused much of his professional life on the study of expertise. In his book Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise, he states that "training should focus on doing rather than on knowing— and, in particular, on bringing everyone’s skills closer to the level of the best performers in a given area.” Put another way, you’re not going to learn how to code by reading a book or watching YouTube videos alone! Take action, and get your hands dirty. Sure, videos and instruction can help to build knowledge, but it is only through deliberate practice that you’ll actually acquire the skills necessary to write working applications.

Get a Coach

Once you start putting knowledge to work, it’s important to get feedback. Plus, you’re bound to encounter hurdles and impediments, which can slow you down. The best way to get over a hurdle is to benefit from the wisdom of someone that has already jumped over it! 

Here’s another interesting thing about having a coach. When you meet with them, you feel obligated to make forward progress. When I was in Junior High, I was learning how to play the drums and I took lessons. It was so embarrassing when I’d show up for my lesson, and I hadn’t practiced. If someone is willing to take the time to work with you, you’ll feel a innate obligation to reciprocate by doing the work requested of you.

Measure Your Progress

With the help of a coach, you can identify milestones and goals to keep tabs on your progress. Having these written down and and established ahead of time will help to keep you honest. Also, as adult learners, we love to have agency in our education. Having some measurements in place will help us to tweak our approach to learning so that we’re making the most of our investment of time, energy, and dollars.

Set the Stakes

Once you have all of the above in place, believe it or not, the hard part is over. The last thing to do is to ensure you follow through with the plan! Let’s face it, we’re just plain awful at exerting self-discipline, so how can you set the stakes high enough to keep you accountable? Create incentives for yourself, and reconnect with your big why. 

One of my favorite questions to ask aspiring software engineers is, “what pain will you bring about by not trying to learn this craft?” Set the stakes high, and you’ll be more motivated to stay the course and reach your goal.

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If you’re considering a career in software development, what if I told you we had these steps all worked out for you already? To date, we’ve helped to launch over 800 careers in web development, and we’d love to work with you to make your dreams a reality, too. You can make this happen, and we can help.


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