Career Opportunities

A ComputorEdge Column

Back to Archive Index

A New Career (Parts 1-5)

© Douglas E. Welch 1998

Since I began this column a year ago I am being asked one particular question more and more frequently. In this layoff-happy climate many people are finding it hard to work in their chosen profession. There is little more distressing than watching the want ads and seeing an ever reducing number of open positions. They may be an engineer who used to design aircraft or a middle manager who used to have 20 people reporting to him or her. What do you do when your job doesn?t exist anymore? Many people are answering this by looking to high-tech jobs for their new career. Unfortunately, they often find the road to a new career a long and winding one.

No Holy Grail
When you open the classifieds today it is obvious where the most job opportunities fall. The sections labeled computers, data processing and programming are bursting with jobs. Many people see a way out of their old, dead-end careers in these growing professions, but there are a few limitations that can dim the fantasy.
First, not everyone has the technical knowledge necessary for programming, network management or technical support. Even though we can learn much from books, employers are looking for people with years of hands-on experience. When you change careers you have to expect to take a lower paying position until you can demonstrate your talents. Fortunately, people who demonstrate competence and quick learning abilities can rise quickly in computer fields.
Second, not everyone has the temperament for a computer career. I have discussed the needs for various computer jobs in previous columns. (see What does it take? Parts 1-4, August 1997) Years of engineering work may not have prepared you for the rough and tumble world of computer programming or technical support. Also, your own preferences may not match with a computer career. If you like working with other people, staring at computer code for 8 hours a day probably isn?t the best job for you. It is this very fact that led me into network management and technical support positions instead of programming.

Where to start?
It is not impossible to make a lateral move into a new computer career, but you will need to review the options carefully before making the leap. You will also want to leverage any computer knowledge you have gained in your current position. Most of us use computers on a daily basis but don?t really understand the limitations of our skills and the need to acquire more comprehensive knowledge.
The best time to start planning a career move is while you still have your current job. This will allow you a stable environment, access to state-of-the-art computers and information you will need to educate yourself. You can accomplish a career move if you are unemployed but it will be much more difficult and can take you much longer to accomplish.
A stable paycheck will also allow you pay for computer classes and training rather than learning entirely on your own. This can help speed you education and your career move.

Next Week: Deciding on a new career

Once you make the decision that a computer career is your next goal you need to create a plan that allows you to make the transition as quickly and easily as possible. It is important to remember that a smooth transition may not always be possible and a change of careers can involve lost income, lower salaries, job dissatisfaction and a host of other problems.

How bad is it?
One of the first evaluations you must make is the unemotional evaluation of your current career. Are you likely to be laid off in the near future? Has your salary been stalled for more than a year? What is the general state of your industry? Is a merger in the works? Think like an executive reading the Wall Street Journal. Is the health of your industry rising, falling or stable?
Next, you need to divine your feelings for your current position. Do you like what you are doing now? If so, can you move to another company to gain a better position in your current career? Is money the only reason you are looking at a new computer career? Can you make your current job better or more stable?
Lastly, what are you willing to give up? Can you survive on a lower salary for a number of months or years? What advancement possibilities exist in your new computer career? Is this new industry rising, falling or stable? Imagine what you will be doing in 5 years if you move to a new career. Is it far better than what your current career can offer you in 5 years?

Out of the frying pan
The reason for all these questions is to prevent you from jumping out of the frying pan and directly into the fire of unemployment, unhappiness and an unfulfilling career. Sometimes we don?t realize the benefits or possibilities of our current jobs until we try something new. The grass may look greener on the other side of the employment fence but the lawn could be filled with a few weeds.
It is infinitely easier to stay at your current job than building a new career from scratch. You want to be reasonably assured that your current job is coming to a dead end before you bail out. Take the time now, to carefully evaluate your options. You want to insure, as much as possible, that your new career will not have as many limitations as your current one.

Take the time
Unless you are under threat of immediate layoff or company failure, take the time to carefully evaluate all your needs. The time you spend now will save you many headaches and possibly even heartaches in the future. Changing careers is never anything to undertaken lightly. Every profession has its pros and cons and your goal is to clearly understand as many of them as possible.

Next Week: Where to turn for help?

There are many people and services that can assist you in a career change. Some, like job listings, the Internet, friends and neighbors are obvious, but there are others that might not first come to mind. It is in your best interest to exploit all possible avenues to insure that your career change goes as smoothly as possible.

Talk to your boss!
Some people might not be comfortable with this advice, but if you are considering a new computer career, your next stop is a meeting with your current employer. This might seem like a suicidal move, but if you have already decided that your career is in danger, you need to make one last effort to save it.
It might surprise you to find that your boss may understand your concerns. He or she might even be able to assist you in finding a new position in either your old career or a new one. Maybe they know of another department that could use your skills. Maybe they know of another company that has an opening. Good managers understand the importance of good people and will work to keep you in the company, if not in their department. Don?t discount the assistance they can offer.
There is always the possibility, though, that your manager will not be receptive to your plans. Make sure you are prepared for the worst. Most times you will be pleasantly surprised that it doesn?t occur. Keep the discussion civil and unemotional. Speak of your desires clearly but don?t offer ultimatums. Rigid plans leave no room for discussion and could make the meeting end badly.
Search for a win-win situation with your current manager and your company. If they can?t provide you what you need, ask them for assistance in moving elsewhere. You can gain a new career and the manager has one less person they have to fire to cut costs. If your manager helps you move to another department smoothly, they know they can still call on your skills, should the need arise.
In the end, you have to make the best decision for yourself. This doesn?t mean you have to burn your bridges behind you. Keep the lines of communication open for as long as possible.

Friends of Friends
Your best network of connections is not your friends. It is their friends. Expanding your contacts to include ?friends of friends? opens a whole new world of possibilities.
The first question to ask your friends is ?Who do you know who does??? If your friend has any connections that might help you, ask them to contact that person and make an introduction. A personal recommendation holds much more weight than a cold call or a resume to an unknown company. While it may go without saying, be sure to thank your friends for their introductions and offer to do the same for them should the need arise.

Next Week: Educational and Technical Resources

Over the last few weeks I have discussed the people issues involved in changing careers. The rest of this month I will explore the educational and technical issues involved in developing a new computer career.

One of the most important aspects of changing careers is expanding your knowledge of a new job. Even though computers are used in most jobs today, we frequently only learn the software and software functions that we use in our current job. Technical positions require not only a more encyclopedic knowledge of software programs but also an understanding of the technology landscape as a whole.
If you have the luxury of time and money, you can begin taking classes at a host of local universities, community colleges and private technical training schools. While this will provide you with the book knowledge you need, it is important that you apply this knowledge as soon as possible after acquiring it. Not only does this help you retain the knowledge; it also helps to develop a history of hands-on work that can be mentioned in interviews and your resume.

When learning about computers, it is important, though not required, to get as much time at the keyboard as possible. You need to explore a whole world of technology quickly and sometimes sitting in front of the computer is the best way to do it. The Internet itself holds a huge amount of information, available at the click of a mouse.
It is best to have your own computer if you desire to move into a computer career. The reality is, though, that you may not be able to afford one. Unemployment and low pay can make owning a computer problematical and I don?t recommend that you go deep into debt to acquire one. Learning will be more difficult without a computer but not impossible.
If you are limited in time or money, you can turn to your friends who might have a variety of computer hardware and software. Ask them for some time at their computer and explain what you are trying to accomplish. They might even be a resource themselves if they have computer knowledge you need.
Finally, make use of public computer resources, such as libraries and technology stores. Libraries today are offering a host of computer services including word processing and Internet access. All this is free for the taking although you may be limited to how much time you can spend on the computer at one sitting.
Libraries also offer plenty of computer books that can introduce you to software and technology. Computer magazines offer the most current information about the technology industry and can prepare you for questions that might come up in interviews. Don?t underestimate your ability to learn by reading. Learning about computers doesn?t always require you to be sitting at one.

Next Week: Interviews

One of the most stressful aspects of moving into a new career is the interview process. You will be outside of your usual element and may feel insecure. There are ways to prepare yourself and make a good impression, even if it doesn?t lead to a job. Each interview will be a learning experience about what companies are looking for and where you need to focus your skills.

When you are looking to change jobs it seems every ad is screaming for something you don?t have. ten years experience. CNE, MSCE, C++, Java, etc. While you can?t ignore the technical qualifications required, you can offer real-world skills. In order to do this though; you have to be able to demonstrate your skills.
Just because you have never supported a product in a professional position or programmed as a fulltime job doesn?t mean that you aren?t capable of the doing the job. You need to have examples of the additional work you have done and good anecdotes about how it prepared you for the job you are seeking. Demonstrating your experience, even if it was for a friend, neighbor or consulting client, is what is important. You are saying to the interviewer, ?I have done my homework and paid my dues, albeit in a unconventional fashion. I know I can do the job. How can I convince you??
When I was interviewing for my position at Walt Disney Imagineering, I purposefully understated my Macintosh experience. I was a Macintosh user at home and had developed a few small projects for my friends, and myself but I didn?t have any ?professional? experience with the computer. As we went through the interview, my interviewer (later, my boss) kept dragging out my Macintosh experience. He even chastised me for understating my Macintosh experience. It didn?t matter to him that I hadn?t used the Macintosh in a business environment. It was only important that I knew how to use it.

Go out and get it!
Some interviews might go badly. You may be lacking in the skills the company requires. This is more a failing of the company, than you. Review of your resume should have told them your skills were not in line with their needs. Even so, you can learn a lot from an interview like this.
You can learn what knowledge the marketplace is really looking for and what skills you should concentrate your energy on obtaining. If they need Java programmers (and you like programming) go out and learn Java. If they need network managers, find a friend who can teach you. Each interview tells you where you need to further focus your educational energies.

You can build a career in computers even if your experience lies elsewhere. It will take time. It will take energy, but you can do it.

Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on Douglas' web page at:

He can reached via email at