Friday Aug 17, 2007

Things I tell my mentees (part 3: changing roles)

At some point, you may decide that what you're doing is not what you want to be doing. I've had that feeling. I started out as a programmer, moved into multi-platform system administration, then consulting, then technical training and course development, and then technical writing.

And then I was stuck. I didn't want to be a technical writer forever -- some people do, and I admire them for that -- but I didn't know what to do next. At the same time, another technical writer I knew was also looking for a new role. She'd talked to our career counselor, who gave her some excellent advice: "Do the job before you try to get the job." That really resonated with me, because in each of the job transitions that I'd made before, I'd done just that. The career counseling term for it is "developing in place".

To expand that just a bit, here are three steps that I recommend to my mentees for changing roles.

  1. Read about the new kind of work
  2. Take a class (or two or ten) in that new field
  3. Start doing that kind of work in your current role
It's a progressive process -- if you like what you read, take a class. If you enjoyed the class, then apply what you learned back at work. The colleague that I mentioned above did that, and went to our boss, who allowed her to manage a small project. After a few weeks, she discovered that, while she liked the idea of being a project manager, she hated being a project manager. No harm, no fowl.

Now, one of my mentees asked if that wasn't a waste a time -- going through all that time and effort to find out that you don't like something. On the contrary, I consider it a good investment of time. Imagine how my colleague would have felt if she'd gotten a full-time job as a project manager, only to find out then that she hated it.

I used that process above to make my last career change: from technical writing to user experience design. I read, I took classes, I applied what I did in class back at work, and in 12 - 18 months, I got the role that I wanted. It took a ton of work on my part and the trust of my new manager, but now I love what I do.

Like I tell my daughter: Trying is the first part of doing.

About

I am a Senior Principal User Researcher in Oracle's Middleware division. Essentially, I work with users, customers, and consumers, to try to make the software we create easier for you to use.

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