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Career Switch: Where do I Start?

One of the most common questions I get from folks is, “I’m currently in (insert a job role) and want to get into (insert a different job role). What should I do first?”

There are easy answers, like “Get your AZ-900 certification” for someone wanting to get started as a cloud engineer. But lately I’ve tended to gravitate toward the harder answer, which is, “Learn to answer that questions for yourself.” I can then dig into the details of what I mean by that, and help someone learn to both define their own success more clearly as well as help them learn more about navigating their way to that success on their own.

It goes something like this:

First, you need to understand that, as an employee, you are providing a service to your employer. In a very real way, you’re your own little business, acting as a vendor to the company that pays your salary. Your job exists because there’s a need for it, and the company is willing to pay someone to fill that need. So the first rule of any business is to understand your market. What do your customers want? If you’re looking to switch up your career, you need to understand what it is the job market actually needs solved. One way to do this is by carefully examining a broad variety of job postings—these can help reveal clues about the problems that companies hire people to solve. But a more meaningful way is to dig in. Use social media. Connect with people who are in the job role you’re aiming for, and ask them to help you understand what they do, and what problem they solve for their employer. Offer to send them an Amazon gift card or something in exchange for their time. Remember: you’re a business unto yourself, and businesses sometimes need to pay for market research!

Understanding the problems that companies have helps you understand how you can be a solution for them. And that’s how you need to think of it: you’re not “getting a job,” you’re solving a problem. If you can’t clearly and concisely state the problem you solve, then you’ve no business having the job.

Second, once you understand the problem you solve, or could solve, then you need to start ensuring your resume legitimately illustrates how you solve that problem. Prospective employers do not care about your random past experience: you need to filter it down so that your resume illustrates how you solve their problem. Don’t make them have to interpret your resume, because trust me, they don’t have the time. If you’re your own little business, then your resume—as well as your public persona in the tech community as a whole—is your brochure. Does it “sell” you?

Third, understand that just because you want to be a Senior Cloud Architect (or whatever) doesn’t mean you will be right away. Many technology positions solve deeply complicated problems, and those positions are going to be filled by people with the experience to solve the problem. Career switchers rarely have that experience. You may have been a Vice President of Accounting in your old job, but that “seniority” doesn’t translate to that Senior Software Engineer role you’ve been yearning for. Career switching means starting over, and while you may be able to bring some important life and business skills with you, expect to start at the bottom and quickly work your way up.

Fourth, do not think that a certification is going to seal the deal for you. Companies see certifications and four-year degrees as table stakes (and the degree part really annoys me, for what it’s worth), not as the only qualifications they’re after. Your certification might help you get an interview, but that’s all. Beyond that, you need to be able to clearly and concisely state how you solve the problem that the company has.

Understanding “what problem you solve” is at the heart of this, and I can’t tell you how important a perspective that is. What’s a software engineer solve for? Not, “the company needs code written.” No. The actual problem would be something more like, “the company needs to accelerate the pace at which it releases software,” which is a very different thing indeed. Any software engineer can write code; not every software engineer can solve that problem.

Understanding the problems of a company you don’t even work for is hard, and that’s why you have to do research. If you really truly want the job, that research will be worth doing. If you’re not willing to do that research, then… why should they hire you?

A big part of Ampere Club is being able to discuss articles like this with other Club members, and to start making the professional connections that will make starting your research easier. So I hope you’ll take advantage—remember, you can log into the website to check your member benefits and start participating.

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