January 13, 2021

Analytical approach to career switching

The conventional road to a vocation is through an education. In this post I try to show an alternative way of pivoting to a different career without going back to school/university.

Personally I had my fair share of pivoting early on. My education started with mechatronics, since I liked creating stuff as a kid and doing mechanics and electronics combined seemed like a good fit. After this education I was able to create machines, but to control them required software, which made me study computer engineering. After completing the first phase (Propedeuse) I wanted to do pure software without the hardware, which made me complete a BSc. software engineering. When working with this degree as an infra engineer (managing servers and writing software), I felt the need for some more background about systems, which motivated me to complete a MSc. security and network engineering. While doing this study, I learned that security isn’t my thing (I prefer creating stuff instead of verifying/breaking other’s code). During that time I developed a new interest in data science, but before completing the enrollment to the master data science, I learned that I can start doing data engineering and learn on the job instead of doing another degree. Now that I’m working as a data engineer with data scientists, I’m not so sure I want to grow to that position.

Coming back to the topic of this post, let’s discuss a generic approach on preparing oneself for a career switch without another degree.

General idea

You need to convince your target employer that you are passionate and motivated to learn. This requires learning the trade and some self marketing.

We try to adopt a minimal learning strategy and start to create a portfolio as quick as possible. While doing so you’ll discover what you need to learn. This is different from learning as a hobby. When you learn as a hobby it needs to be fun and engaging, like the Feynman lectures for physics and Khan Academy for mathematics. However, fun learning solutions are usually too broad for what we need.

Exempted professions

Many jobs of today’s jobs require a lot of time behind a screen, from accounting to software development to visual/graphical/interior/urban design and architecture. These skills can be learned at home and demonstrated through personal projects bundled in a digital portfolio.

Some work requires special experience, like a surgeon, which cannot be obtained without an education. Other work, like a metal worker, requires special tools (welding, milling etc.) that are just too expensive to own, making an education cheaper. Another case is when titles matter; in academia, as a consultant, in medicine, when raising money with venture capitalists, etc.

Learning the trade

When you picked a vocation that can be (mostly) learned on a laptop, we can start our learning journey.

For our journey we denote 4 points of focus; exploration, learning, portfolio creation and marketing. A rough timeline could look a bit as follows:

explore    ######### # # # #
learn         ###############
portfolio        ###### # # #
market              ###
new job!               ######

We start with an exploratory phase. We first explore both sides; supply (professionals doing the work) and demand (vacancies). Get an overview of which vacancies are out there and what skills/expertise/certificates/exams it requires. On the other side, look at people doing the work that you want to do and look at their resume (education and previous experience) and their online portfolios. For both supply and demand, write down (use spreadsheet) the common denominator in skills/education offered and required.

You should now have a feel of what you can start to learn. When a diploma is mentioned across many vacancies, you should get familiar with all the topics in that education. You can do this by looking up the syllabus from multiple universities and read wikipedia articles on the subjects discussed in the courses. You do not have to know everything in depth, but you do need to know some jargon and be able to follow a conversation on the topic. Sidenote, I initially wanted to do the BSc. Artificial Intelligence and learned that the same study had different topics at different universities. University of Utrecht was more cognitive oriented while University of Amsterdam was more technical.

When it comes down to dissecting the tree of topics that are part of an education, observe that lots of topics are not relevant for the job. For example, I learned the history of software development life cycle (SDLC) but only use the latest (agile/scrum/kanban). The same goes for the history of the internet and cryptography (besides being able to joke about kamasutra cipher). Sometimes a course looks relevant (like the Prolog programming language) but is only used in academia. (I do see the value of developing one’s thinking, but the specific skill is not needed for the job) Be aware of the prerequisites of courses, I once signed up for infinitesimal calculus B without first doing A, I failed the course. Therefore also read upon the topics of all prerequisites.

Learning is a never ending process. After some initial learning we can start applying it on projects that can be part of our portfolio. During this step you will uncover what you need to practice or study more into depth to make your projects into a success.

For me the exploration and putting (hobby) projects into my portfolio never fully stops.

Planning

We start with planning to plan. For example you might plan to study 1 hour on workdays and 5 hours in the weekend, giving 10h per week.

It’s important to work on various topics at the same time, not on the same day but in the same week. This helps us avoid tunnel vision, progress in multiple dimensions and not betting on a single horse. Another point to keep in mind is to zoom out every day, get a helicopter overview of your progress and assess if your current trajectory is still the right one (avoid loss aversion).

An example of the first week’s planning could be:

  • mo. (1h) Exploratory looking at vacancies and professionals on Linkedin
  • tu. (1h) Plan how to get an overview of vacancies, professionals and what skills/education etc.
  • we. (1h) Create initial overview vacancies
  • th. (1h) Create initial overview professionals
  • fr. (1h) Plan how to do the initial learning/reading on topics (create a mindmap?)
  • weekend (5h) Reading introduction on wikipedia of all topics to learn

For learning topics, we recommend touching every topic first lightly (read introduction) and iteratively go deeper on each topic. This helps cement the knowledge in your brain since you’ll revisit the topic multiple times with an increasing level of depth (this is called breadth first search, which is opposed to depth first search).

Marketing

Your online presence needs to be in line with the type of employee the company expects. Most professions don’t want to have party photos online showing they’re intoxicated. Personally I like it when a search for my name in Google shows my hobby projects (portfolio) and some sports competitions I participated in.

Resume

Your CV needs to be in line with what is expected in your field. The resume of a designer will look very different than someone in academia. Study resumes of successful people in your field and create a similar one.

Ask people who are further in their professional career than you and recruiters (they are CV masters) to review it and provide tips.

Don’t underestimate this process. My resume took in total more than 80h to complete, which was an incremental process over years. (I spent most of the time on moving from docx to LaTeX to python generating printable HTML and docx)

Portfolio

Having your own website is usually not needed but it shows that you went that extra mile and are tech-savvy.

Regardless if you have your own website or use some other way of publishing your online portfolio, it needs to be out there for everyone to find. Don’t hide behind something password protected but show that you are proud of your skills and the projects you created demonstrating those skills.

The form of your portfolio is different for every profession. As a software developer I prefer Github, since everyone in my field is on it. For a video editor this will probably be Youtube or Vimeo.

Find the communication channels and formats that are in line with professionals that are already performing the work that you aim to be doing.

Accountability

An education motivates you by setting deadlines and the fact that you payed for it (loss aversion).

For this solo path you need to be an autodidact, but having an external motivator can help. Examples are;

  • an accountability partner
  • signing up to take an exam/certification on a topic
  • scheduling a rehearsal job interview with a friend

One of my long term goals is to learn Spanish, but I only find myself learning it just before an upcoming trip or when having Spanish speaking people around me. Be aware of your own lack of motivation and act upon it.

Freelance vs. employment

Being a freelancer and using platforms like Upwork, Peopleperhour, Fiverr and Behance can provide you with more freedom than employment. However, being committed to one employer/assignment for 40h per week for an extented period, will usually be better for your resume and easier to start with.

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