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People

October 24, 2018

Career transition in action: from student advisor to digital project manager...a big learning curve!

Kathryn McTavish
project manager / scotch aficionado / dance enthusiast

Change Your Industry, Change Your Life

Last year I switched industries - from higher education to a technology startup - when I joined Radical I/O. It was one of the most challenging and risky things I’ve ever done, especially since I’m generally quite risk averse by nature!

I had spent twelve years in higher education, working in universities in the UK and in Canada. A love of learning coupled with a succession of fun and challenging roles, supportive and wonderful colleagues, and (honestly) financial stability made the university environment a very appealing place to build a rewarding career.

Following a departmental reorganization, I was laid off and I was devastated. I had always gained a large part of my personal identity, goals, and sense of achievement through my work. I didn’t know what to do next, or how to define myself and my purpose without it.

While I knew that there are far worse things in life than losing a job - even a career that I loved - I didn’t know how to move forward. In fact, I had no idea of what I wanted to do next. I knew I wanted to take a break from higher education, but didn’t know how to transition into a different industry, or even if I could. So I began talking to friends about their careers, the industries they’d worked in, and their own motivations.

Exploration and Self-Awareness

Speaking to friends about their career experiences was eye-opening. Over half of my closest friends had been laid off within the previous two years - I was definitely not alone! Having the time to speak with them about their own experiences and their industries, as well as hearing about their various motivations and reflections, helped in remembering and reconnecting with my own sense of purpose.

Kind friends offered opportunities to shadow them or other people they knew in their company or industry that may be able to help. After a few informational interviews, I definitely had a better idea of things I didn’t want to do.

I signed up for the Right Management program, which was helpful in providing a space to reflect on previous experiences and to discuss potential options. It also gave me a physical space to go. I’ve never been able to work from home and found it very difficult to job-hunt from home, too. The advisors were supportive and knowledgeable about the Vancouver job market and the available opportunities. They also provided practical help in updating my resume and LinkedIn profile.

After about three months of unemployment, I realized that there were many things in my favour:

  • A large existing network spread across key Vancouver industries.
  • Many competencies that were valued in all industries, including being goal-oriented, client/customer-focused, and having a “will do” attitude.
  • A skill-set that was surprisingly flexible to different roles, including organization, project management, and a high level of attention to detail.

I also realized that something was getting in my way… I have an all-consuming fear of imposing on others. I will do almost anything to avoid imposing on someone, including friends and family members, to ask even seemingly small favours. Reaching out to people to ask for help was, therefore, a daily battle. This is something that I continue to challenge myself to overcome.

It really is who you know…

Then, one evening I met up with a friend who recently started her own software development company with her husband. She was frustrated that she didn’t have enough time to do the things she wanted to do to shape the company, its working culture, and its partnerships in the community. In a true light bulb moment, we realized that I could help! I started volunteering with them here at Radical to get a sense of the company, what they do, and see whether I’d be a help or hindrance to them at that stage of their company development.

During that time I provided some general office support and utilized the large library of online modules provided by the career support program to learn about software development, agile processes, scrum, kanban, project management, and product management. To my surprise (since I didn’t know anything about software development at all), I enjoyed it right from the start.

The Right Role at the Right Time

My background in education translated well to this new role, as I managed project budgets, processes and programs (similar to student program management roles), delivered presentations to groups (honed in student recruitment), and liaised with clients (very similar to liaising with faculties, departments, and school teachers). The opportunity to help create something brand new, in collaboration with a great team, was the challenge I needed. It felt so great to use these skills again, and to feel useful again.

I’ve been in this role for a year and a half now, and it has evolved considerably during that time. As Radical’s Project Manager, I manage client projects, internal products, and internal projects and events. Most recently, this included launching the City of Richmond’s MyRichmond personalized web application as well as Radical’s own 360-ready digital asset management and publishing platform, BeThere360.

Being new to the technology industry, I initially didn’t feel that I belonged because I was no longer an expert in my field. I have high standards for myself in being knowledgeable about what I do, and being someone that others go to for information and help. I have always felt comfortable and confident in my role after the initial learning curve. When I started this role, I knew much, much less about it compared to anything else I’ve ever done. I had to learn everything from scratch, including a whole new vocabulary. (Who knew that ‘SQL’ isn’t spelt the same way as ‘sequel’?!) I continue to try to be (relatively more) comfortable with discomfort.

While the learning curve has been massive, Co-founders Ian and Briana, and the entire team at Radical have been incredibly patient and kind. The team here is like family: providing support and help to each other; enjoying each other’s company at official and considerably-less-than-official team events; and, despite having different opinions, pulling together to produce great work. Radical has been a place for me to learn and to thrive in a welcoming and supportive environment.

I don’t know whether this is a permanent career change or something that I do for a good period of time and then move on. One of the things that I have learned through this process is that I don’t need to know this right now - there is always something new to explore and try, and I never want to limit my opportunities.

Some Insights and Tips

Switching industries and roles can be challenging, so I offer this list of some insights that helped me personally and may help you:

  • Seeking a sense of purpose to improve the human condition and make people’s lives better is relevant across many industries, so if this is also your purpose, then you’ll find a home in most (if not all) industries.
  • Visionary leaders will embrace people’s complementary differences to create a sum that’s greater than its parts. This can help if you wish to move to something new - seek out these leaders, who will agree that the different experience and expertise that you bring are valuable!
  • If you also enjoy creating and nurturing collaborative partnerships, then there are fantastic organizations and companies across every industry who wish to bring together like-minded individuals and organizations in order to achieve the best outcomes.
  • Collaboration, communication, and listening are incredibly important, everywhere.
  • I loved that higher education institutions are continually motivated to move forward and improve - it is in their mission, particularly for research - and wanted to find a company that also thinks and strives for the same.
  • ‘Fit’ is important. What are your values, of these which are your must-matches, and which are deal-breakers? We don’t always find organizations that match with every single one of our values - although if you do, that is amazing! Find out as much as you can about organizations you wish to join to ensure that their culture matches with your key values.

One of the biggest things that I’ve learned is that you can make a meaningful contribution in any industry. It’s about figuring out what ‘making a difference’ means to you and then finding a place you can do that.

With 18 months now under my belt, I feel like I’m less in headless-chicken mode and now actively pursuing professional development opportunities - such as getting to know the local project and product manager communities, and identifying useful certifications that will help develop my theoretical and practical understanding further. I’m also excited to work with and support the team here at Radical on our upcoming projects, including moving back into the education space with our BeThere360 product in the coming months.

Are you transitioning careers into tech yourself? Feel free to reach out - I’d be happy to chat and provide support over coffee!

Technology. People. Purpose.

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