Last updated: 25 May 2023


Shift gears and switch careers

I've talked about my history before, but I haven't provided explicit advice about how to make a career switch effectively.

Over the past few months, I've been mentoring on ADPList which has been a really great experience so far. I've managed to learn a lot about my teaching style and also about what value I can bring to people beyond the typical portfolio review or interview advice.

One thing I've been mentoring on and am explicitly asked about is how I was able to successfully switch careers—from account management to design—without spending a single penny on a course from one of the big bootcamp providers. Granted, a few things had to fall in place to allow that, and there's a high element of luck, privilege and persistence that enabled the stars to align, but, I think it's possible for anyone if you look for the right opportunities in front of you.

So below is some of my key advice based on what I did, how I did it and why I think it's important. Try to look for any of these things if you're in a position to switch, and use them to your advantage to get there.

1. Spot the signs

The first thing is deciding when you think it's the right time to transition your career. Maybe you're getting bored in your current role, maybe you've spent your spare time exploring things that you'd like to do more permanently, maybe you find yourself not delivering on what's expected of you.

I noticed the latter one and that was my key trigger. I was an account manager at a startup digital agency in healthcare. I enjoyed the industry (to some extent) because the majority of projects we worked on were outcomes focused, in areas where people were often underserved/undertreated and where we could witness real results.

But I sucked at my job.

I was always forgetting the priority of tasks, I couldn't remember deadlines or manage my time effectively, I was good at client relationships, but fell short on ensuring all the team delivery aligned. Truthfully, I just wasn't cut out to be managing projects full time at that point in my career and I was also just not that into it. After being pulled aside a few times on this (sorry Lee!), I ended up being afforded the opportunity to explore managing just the digital projects, with a key focus on being the face for it in the company.

But why?

The partners saw in me some skills that I'd not really noticed. I'd been coding for many years behind the scenes but fell away from it a few years before I joined, I also had a fine art degree where I'd studied technology-based art, and I'd worked at Apple and developed a love of hardware engineering too. So there was a clear set of skills around technology and creativity that were being underutilised and there was a gap in the business for it. Success!

So rather than floundering around in a role I couldn't do well, causing the business to suffer as a result---and my career too. I was supported and encouraged to flip and start exploring a completely new avenue.

Thanks to Lee and the team, I got to learn on the job. I started coding again (in PHP for the first time, thanks Nick!) and began to learn Javascript again. I started to map out solutions to problems by creating information architecture maps and user journeys more seriously (I'd been doing these before, but had no idea what they all were, it just felt natural) and I had the chance to attend some industry events and learn more about the world of UX. And this was the beginning of my flip. The whole shift took around three and a half years, so it wasn't fast (and don't expect it to be), but that slow burn taught me a lot.

Pithy takeaway: Look for signs in your current role that you're underperforming or unhappy. This doesn't necessarily mean you suck at your job, it means you could be in the wrong job for you!

2. Find a sponsor internally or externally

Looking for someone to help you transition your role from within could be a great way to make the switch. It won't always make sense, and you won't always find it but it can have a major impact on helping you get to where you want to be.

In reality, there's two paths you can likely look to take:

  1. Find a sponsor within and make your move internally
  2. Work behind the scenes and make the switch by switching companies and starting fresh

A sponsor within

When utilising the sponsor within your organisation, you'll need to share your reasons for wanting to shift and likely in some ways interview for the switch (and possibly have to actually interview if it's an internal job advert).

Importantly, internal sponsors can open doors and unlock opportunity. In my case, one of the business partners gave me the chance to explore the things I appeared to be both better at, and more interested in, as a way to get out of the cycle of underperforming but also as a way to fill a hole that existed in the business but wasn't actively thought about.

Sometimes though, that internal sponsor isn't available, so your next option is to look outside.

A sponsor outside

If you need to look outside, scout your available network first before relying on applying for jobs. Remember that at this stage you've got zero track record of actually doing the job you want to, so you'll need to be conscious of how that'd appear to a recruiter.

No-one wants to be in the Nope Pile™ so do everything you can to not end up in it.

Although I found my sponsor within, once I started those new roles I had some very weird titles from our collective lack of understanding what I now did. I was a Digital Innovation Manager (what!?) and then a Digital Lead (🤷🏻‍♂️) and then finally a Lead UX Architect (better!).

Sometimes, when applying for roles later I massaged my titles into what they were in common parlance to make it easier for the interviewer or recruiter to figure me out. So I was a UX Designer and then a Lead UX Architect.

After that I moved to a new job and I ended up as a Senior Solutions Designer (what!?) so I called that a Senior Product Designer initially but have since swapped it to Senior Design Engineer because again, it more accurately reflects what I did.

None of this is lying, it's about making it easier for a recruiter to make sense of what you did if you've worked at companies that have non-traditional job titles.

When considering an external sponsor, look for someone who might be willing to take a punt on you. Search networks such as ADPList where you can find mentors, and if you impress someone enough, who knows what might happen! Equally, don't be afraid to scout Twitter for people you respect and send them a DM if you can, you'd be surprised how often they'd reply.

Pithy takeaway: Look for opportunities in your current role to start exploring things that interest you, narrow in on them and start exploring them. Aim to find a sponsor internally or externally that'll afford you the space to do it, and take that leap.

3. Find a mentor outside of your workplace

So on the subject of ADPList and mentorship, there's a lot of options out there. The reality with most mentoring is that it's normally a free service where industry experts dedicate some spare time to helping you, so set your expectations at that level.

You'll potentially gain a lot of useful advice but try to have more than a single mentor. One mentor will be biased on their experience (see above everything I've said about my very specific story) so having a couple can help alleviate some of that. Equally, because most mentoring is free and delivered in a mentor's spare hours, be conscious of wasting a mentor's time by not showing up or by being unprepared.

A mentor will be able to give you some generic guidance or offer feedback on work you're producing such as a portfolio review or CV assessment, but I'd urge you to utilise them more as a sort of a shoulder to lean on.

Talk to them about your frustrations, your challenges, your successes, your questions. Get their advice and soak it up. Keep notes, always keep notes. And follow up from previous sessions to keep a thread going.

Importantly, remember that they're to help you but it's you who wants their help. You need to drive the conversations and come ready with questions and requirements otherwise you won't utilise your sessions well.

I'd recommend structuring your sessions like this:

  • Pleasantries ("hello, how are you?" etc)
  • What happened this/last week?
  • What's the biggest thing on your mind right now?
  • What's frustrated you the most this past week?
  • Next steps

I know it feels really formal, but structure helps with consistency and progress. You don't want to waste yours or their time.

Pithy takeaway: Looking for support outside of your workplace is key. Internal colleagues will often see you for who you are in the workplace (i.e. your current role/title), external mentors will be free of most bias and focus on helping you get to your next step.

4. Start free, then maybe spend money

This is an easy one. There's a tonne of Bootcamp courses out there that charge extortionate amounts of money. I won't name and shame, but the sums are ridiculous, especially because I've spoken with many mentees that didn't even get roles or any further success after spending $9k on a course from a well known provider.

Lots of people are out there to make side income, and lots of people will charge for the services they offer. That's okay, but be wary. There is so much free content available that can get you to where you want to be, especially in design or development, so always start there first.

Free resources may not always have a certificate, but that's okay, having a certificate isn't everything. The reality is that showing the work you've made is what's most valuable, not having a certificate with a Bootcamp's name on it.

As a hiring manager, I don't really mind what your background is if the work speaks for itself. I'm biased here because I had a non-traditional background, but, I think most hiring managers would be the same.

Pithy takeaway: There's a wealth of free resources out there for any career, particularly design and development. Take advantage of all of that great thinking and sharing, and build your knowledge from there first. Then, maybe, hit a bootcamp if you absolutely feel you want or have to.

5. Create example work from your own briefs

Something that's always been difficult for me to swallow is portfolios where someone is new to the industry (either junior or switching careers) and it's filled with redesigns of Spotify or Gmail etc.

These projects can be really interesting from a thinking and execution perspective. I can get a clear idea of how you think about a problem you see and how you execute on that. But, your solution has to ignore all of the internal constraints those teams face. So whilst it may look amazing, there are likely many reasons they've not shipped something similar.

Queue the incoming stream of unsolicited redesigns based on this.

What I'd prefer to see is a set of self-initiated briefs. What if you could design/build an app or website from scratch to solve a specific problem you face? How would you tackle that?

There's also great brief generating platforms out there that you can use as thought starters. I'd always prefer a personal problem personally, from both my own perspective and as a hiring manager, because you'll be more personally bought in to the idea. But briefs will feel more like working at an organisation and allow you to test working in an area you might not be as passionate about.

Check out Good Brief as a great starter. You can use this for development too but focus more on the logic and tech stack than on the actual design itself (use TailwindUI or other similar things to simplify the UI part for you).

Pithy takeaway: There's a tonne of free brief generating sites out there, or you can think about a problem you face and create a solution for it. I'd always urge you to avoid popular product redesigns because there's often a tonne of constraints you're unaware of so it doesn't feel realistic to a recruiting manager.

Hopefully some of those insights and tips help you on your switch if you planning to make one.

Remember, most importantly, that all of your experience is relevant and valuable. It doesn't matter where you've switched from and what you're switching to, there will always be valuable skills you can pull over.

When you go to interview, consider these things and really highlight them during the process. If you do what I did, you can emphasise that as an Account Manager you learnt the value and importance of stakeholder management and relationship building. As a designer or developer this is an extremely valuable skill you might otherwise not learn until you hit a more senior level.

So try not to see your past as a crutch but instead as a jet pack for your burgeoning new career.

Send me an email if you're interested to chat more about this, or if you want mentoring support you can find me on ADPList.

First published: 25 May 2023

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