If you’d asked me 20 years ago what my career path would look like, I’m willing to bet I would not have guessed I’d be a mechanical engineer turned software developer, turned-instructional designer, turned learning and development executive.
But that is exactly the path that I followed.
From the day I started college, I was an engineer who loved teaching. That presented a conflict when I entered the world of work because realistically, I had to choose one or the other – and if I’m honest with myself, I chose the one that I felt would make me the most money.
Fast forward two decades, as I watch so many professionals switch careers (especially teachers moving to Learning & Development, and people gaining certifications to move to tech), I can’t help but think about the wonderful knowledge they’ve worked years to attain being left behind! But, do they really have to start from scratch to transition careers? In most cases, the answer is a resounding NO.
You’d think the only thing software development and learning & development have in common is the word “development”. But in studying and practicing both (and working with others in the field) I’ve come to find so many ways that my education and experience in development and engineering were directly applicable to being an L&D practitioner and, now, executive.
The points below will hopefully help you to connect the dots between your current career and the career you may be aspiring to.
Flex your network
Networks are often one of the most overlooked and underutilized resources for professionals. It is important to be as knowledgeable about what you are looking to do as possible. It helps to begin building a network. The benefits of this are two-fold.
Firstly, it allows you to gain insights from often experienced individuals to learn what it takes to make it in the field.
Secondly, once you do become a practitioner, entrepreneur, etc., you have someone who validates your path and work. The second point was key for me. Once I became a practitioner, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing, but becoming active in various instructional design groups on social media assured me that I was on the right track in my approach. Once I became more seasoned, my network presented opportunities to display my expertise, in speaking engagements and mentoring opportunities.
Recognize and take advantage of the opportunities to develop
Any job should provide learning and development opportunities, but sometimes you must actively seek them out, especially outside of your current field. Take these opportunities to gracefully build your skillset for the career you want, even if where you are is just a pitstop. Is there an open project opportunity related to the field you are interested in? Is there an opportunity at your current job that allows you to develop the skill set of where you would like to be? If not at work, what about within your network? Are there any projects they need help with?
I eased into training and instructional design by noticing a gap in training materials. Even though I was a software developer at the time, I was very interested in training (I hadn’t heard of Instructional Design at that point), so I started creating job aids and standardizing training agendas. When the time was right, I added a second Master’s degree to my credentials, this time, an M.S.Ed. in addition to my Masters in Computer Information Systems. Not everyone decides to go the degree route, though. More and more professionals are opting for professional certifications and other credentials, which are valid ways of developing a skill set.
Identify what you already bring to the table
I won’t lie to you – being able to recognize the skills you already have can be difficult, especially when you are already overwhelmed with the prospect of changing your entire career. And you may not be entirely familiar with the field you’d like to move into. Therefore, it is key to have access to a network of experienced professionals (point #1) and to make connections in your current field and in your new field. In my case, I noted the similarities between Technical Project Management & Development and Instructional Design. Both require strong project management skills, need analysis, buy-in, cross-functional collaboration and many other commonalities. When the time came to spruce up my resume for my new field, I felt good about what I’d accomplished and how I was able to show it. For example, an onboarding program I created had resulted in a 200% increase in productivity.
By leveraging my network and taking advantage of opportunities to develop, I was able to identify what I brought to the table. I could recognize which skills, contributions, and achievements were relevant in my field, quantify my contributions and achievements based on this knowledge and speak the language for credibility in my new field thanks to my network (and eventually additional education).
When considering our next professional steps, it is important to not be bound by what and who we “think” we know. Step out on faith and surround yourself with the right people, recognize and seize all opportunities, and give yourself credit for what you know. Often, we know more than what we give ourselves credit for in these situations.
Reflect on what career you are in currently, then think about where you would like to be. Do you notice any commonalities? Who can help you along the way?