“You’re going from teaching to what?”
“Really? Why? I didn’t know you wanted to make websites.”
“Well, I didn’t know that either. I knew I wanted to do something creative. I wanted to solve problems and help people. It turns out, web development is just that, creatively solving problems for people.”
Self-discovery has been a big part of my fellowship experience. For a career changer, there isn’t a map to the next place/position/experience. You may have an idea, an interest, or an inkling. Or not. You may find yourself, wandering.
For the last several years, I was immersed in teaching and single parenting. Revisiting past interests or finding out if I had new ones didn’t really fit into this busy life. But I longed for time to explore, to slow down and listen for a voice I knew must be tied to the longing, yet somehow, I didn’t. Maybe I didn’t have the tools to do so. But then, it became clear, whether or not I was ready, a change was coming in my worklife. I realized I needed to prepare. A lucky encounter with a fellow career transitioner at a beginners Tango class proved key. She briefly looked into the non-profit, Girl Develop It, for a path to transition but decided to go in another direction. When I checked out GDI, a whole new world opened up and suddenly there were lots of possibilities.
The discovery process was underway!
But where to start?! To make sense of all the choices, I followed the suggestion to take as many classes and attend as many events as I could to find what I liked. This was great advice. I also listened to podcasts (including www.codenewbie.org/podcast, and theuxintern.com), attended conferences (including codelandconf.com, and 2017.lancasterpa.wordcamp.org), and was always on the lookout for resources (www.oreilly.com/topics/design, alistapart.com, www.peachpit.com/imprint/index.aspx?st=61074). In many of the GDI classes, there was talk of user experience, or UX. I didn’t know anything about UX but was curious about what drew so many people to this part of tech. I happily took a user experience class and came away wanting to know more. I took another UX class, this time, from a research perspective and an inkling started to develop. Another lucky encounter, this time with a former Interactive Mechanics fellow, planted the Fellowship seed. I didn’t feel quite ready and didn’t have a specific topic or project in mind that I wanted to explore. But, I wanted a structured experience and I knew I needed support from experienced professionals. A few months later, I reached out and applied for the Interactive Mechanics fellowship and was accepted. (Woot!)
The user experience classes I took helped me begin to answer a common career-changer question: What are my transferable skills? I knew that teaching provided me with many skills, but I wanted to see the trajectory from teaching to tech, and, for a while, I struggled to see the path. Would those skills be usable or recognizable in tech?
It turns out that, yes, they are. For instance, in teaching, you must understand where a student is with a particular concept or experience to know how to best guide them. It’s important to key into how students are feeling, as one’s emotional state affects learning. Learners need a sense of safety and empathy to carry them through the learning process and it’s essential that the teacher is a keen listener and observer. My teaching experience provided me with deliberate questioning skills and the ability to create a nurturing environment. Through my fellowship work, I’ve learned that similarly, in user research, efforts are made to uncover a story running through the findings of the discovery process. The process may include users’ responses to surveys or user interviews. Interviewing, and the careful questioning used to reveal users’ experiences and provide responses that are genuine, requires trust. To clarify, it’s not that users are not genuine in their efforts, but getting to the essence of an experience can take some digging. And, if you are digging in with someone, it needs to be a safe space.
“It’s your job to develop (that) rapport over the course of the interview. By all means, recruit participants who are articulate, outgoing, and eager to be part of the interview, but remember that creating that connection falls to you, the interviewer.”
-Steve Portigal, Interviewing Users, How to Uncover Compelling Insights
Another overlapping skill is related to design. In any teaching experience, you are designing experiences and/or materials. The design must meet the needs of the student (user), the learning goal or standard, and must function within the constraints of available resources. In designing digital experiences, there is a need to understand the user, their requirements, and the essential problems that need solving.
Discovering that I already had skills I could apply in the UX process, I realized I could do this, I could belong, and contribute. This knowledge gave me the confidence to venture into less certain territory. That said, it didn’t totally insulate me from the dreaded imposter syndrome, or from the adjustment period I needed to go from an “on”-every-day employee, to an unemployed Fellow, (administrative) freelancer and soon-to-be student. The adjustment period was a swirling mix of trepidation, relief, excitement, and steps forward and back. I was living one of my biggest fears, being unemployed without a clear path forward, but, I suddenly, also, had complete autonomy. I was in charge of my day. That felt amazing and opened up possibilities for other paths in my life that I am exploring and will likely write more about in the future.
Changing careers takes time and community.
It took time to learn how to tell the new story that was unfolding. I worked to make sense of it from the inside and others could see a transition in the making on the outside. The story is still developing. I’m moving on from the initial career transition discoveries of finding a path forward. My focus is now on skill development, completing elements of my fellowship project (a website redesign), and building my portfolio. Through my fellowship work, I learned that the tools and practices of the UX process are invaluable. I’ve also come to realize that my journey isn’t stopping at UX. The coding I’ve done for my fellowship project and for the classes in Delaware County Community College’s Web Development Certificate program have me hooked on front-end development. I anticipate completing DCCC’s program by the end of 2018.
I am grateful for my growing skill set and for the connections I’ve made with other fellows, my mentor, Mike Tedeschi, and all of the mentors at Interactive Mechanics, and additionally, the Roundtable speakers, and others, in and around the Philly tech community. There is learning in every interaction. I think the idea that “It takes a village to raise a child” can be applied here. Changing careers is both an individual and collective endeavor.
The Interactive Mechanics Fellowship Program aims to build capacity for representation and inclusion in the technology field. We see it as a mutual learning experience for the fellows and for our existing team, so we’ve asked our fellows to share some of their expertise on our blog.