MG


2011 / a career change in less than a year

December 31, 2011

2011 will go down in my personal history as a turning point. I’ll remember it as the year I found clarity and conviction. I started the year off with a big change, leaving my IT job of 4+ years not knowing exactly where I would go next. By the end of it, I had a completely new skill set and a new job as a web programmer. In between were a lot of ups and downs. I learned a lot and gained some valuable skills, but not without some self doubt and struggle along the way. In the end, my biggest takeaway is that with the tools and resources we have today, you can learn and accomplish a whole lot on your own without any formal education or credentials.

The most significant step to getting where I am today was leaving my job and taking a sabbatical. No school, no new job, just some time off. It’s not exactly the popular thing to do. Quitting is usually seen as a negative thing, and there’s still this belief out there that you must always be associated with some institution to validate yourself. If you’re not employed or in school at any given time, then you’re not officially doing anything, and that’s… bad. I used to believe this myth, and it may have been true to some degree back in the day, but I reached a point where I was so unhappy and stressed at work, that I just had to get out of there. It didn’t make sense to spend the prime years of my life at a miserable job. It turned out to be a blessing that things got that bad. If it were mediocre enough, I probably would have stayed and gotten stuck in corporate purgatory.

I took the first few months to get myself healthy, both physically and mentally. I got back into good running shape, played a lot of pickup basketball, took snowboarding trips, spent time with family and friends, read books, watched movies, relaxed, cleared my mind, in other words I took a mini retirement at the ripe age of 27. I lived off of savings and had the support of family and friends.

Once I was feeling healthy and happy again, I started brushing up on programming, which I hadn’t really done since college, and taught myself how to do web development. I read online tutorials and got some books from the public library. I had always been interested in web, but it wasn’t covered much in the computer science program at UCLA. It was easy to pick up though, and I already had a bunch of ideas for web sites I wanted to build. I ended up making RoboTag my first project. It felt good to code again and use some creative brain power after years of mindless work. Building your own project is a lot more rewarding and effective than just learning from a class or book. You tend to learn the most important concepts for real world projects this way and don’t waste any time on the unimportant things.

So I was deep into the project when I hit a wall. It wasn’t any one thing, it was just not moving along as quickly as I expected. I had planned to finish this project and also do another one. But coding by yourself with only the help of books and the Internet can take its toll. Having just one extra person makes a huge difference, but I didn’t know of anyone that could work with me. So I pushed myself to a milestone that I was satisfied with, and started thinking about looking for a job in web development. I felt like I had learned enough and wanted to work with people again, but I wasn’t confident I could get a job with less than a year of “unofficial” experience. I had nothing to lose though, so I decided to start prepping the resume. My theory was that people care more about demonstrated skills than years of experience, so I built this website with an interactive CV that demonstrated some Javascript knowledge. For the paper resume, I listed skills first instead of previous experience. I put all the code I had written on github. Finally, I started blogging here as an additional way to get myself out there. I’m pretty introverted and was hesitant to make everything public, but it turned out to be very important.

Once everything was ready, I started looking for open positions. I knew I wanted to work with a startup or smaller company (less bureaucracy, more actual work) and found two local companies that looked interesting. I applied to both late one night, and was surprised to hear back the next morning. A couple interviews later, I had an offer, and it was a great fit for what I was looking for. I’m a couple months in and loving it. It feels like a complete 180 from my previous job. Having the web sites out there made a huge difference. By the time I got to the interview, they already knew a lot about me and saw my code, which made for easy conversation. You can learn quite a bit about a person by reading their code and blog, compared to just a resume. I continue to get messages from recruiters and entrepreneurs who have found their way to my web site. I’m amazed at how much demand there is out there, and how much of a difference it makes to have a web presence.

So I hope this can serve as a high level guide to a successful career change for anyone not happy with their current job. More so for technology related jobs, but I think it can apply to other industries as well. Take some time off, find your passion, research it online, do a couple projects, and write / blog about it. Focus on demonstrating skills instead of resume fodder. The Internet is a game changer that has severely reduced the value of a degree. You can prove yourself just as much if not more with an online portfolio. I could have spent tens of thousands on another degree, but I accompished essentially the same thing with just an Internet connection, some free services, a few books from the public library, and a little self motivation. If this idea appeals to you, check out this excellent post from Tim Ferriss’s blog.

With less time now, I’ve been neglecting the blog, but I’m determined to keep it going because it’s already had such a positive impact on me. I think this should be the last somewhat serious career related entry. Now that I’m good on that front, I’ll probably have less super personal and more interesting / useful material to share. Here’s to 2012 - looking forward to doing great things this year!