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10 Tips for Starting a Second Career in Tech: What I Wish My Advisors Had Told Me

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Fiona Rivera, co-author of Sams Teach Yourself Maya in 24 Hours, shares why and how she made a career switch from business to computer graphics, and offers ten things she wishes her advisors had told her that would have helped her find her happily-ever-after career sooner.
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Characters in fairy tales tend to have clear-cut life choices to make, and the Disney versions usually have happy endings. A few obstacles always get in the way of course, but once a dragon has been slain and the evil queen has been banished, all go on to live happily ever after (except for the evil queen and poor dragon of course). Don’t you wish it were that easy? Many of us leave high school, and perhaps university, not knowing quite what we want to do for a career.  Even if we steadfastly pursue a fixed idea from an early age, it might be out of naiveté of other options, rather than a wise decision.  Along the way to choosing a career, we perhaps receive little, poor, or no career advice at all. Upon graduation, we might fall into a career path, and feel trapped once our careers and life commitments grow. If you are living happily ever after with your career choices, then I take my hat off to you! However, in my case, I had a few false starts before finding out what I really wanted to do.

In this article, I share why and how I made a career switch from business to computer graphics, and offer ten things I wish my advisors had told me that would have helped me find my happily-ever-after career sooner.  

Growing up, I was always torn between artistic and academic disciplines, and technology was never an option. It was therefore very hard for me to choose what to do at university because I didn’t want to choose between art and academics. I decided on economics though, attended the London School of Economics (LSE) straight out of high school, and had a blast. I loved the LSE, and wanted to pursue a career in economics, but life took me down a different path. I focused on accounting and business management.

By my mid-twenties I was the business manager for a city magazine. I took care of company payroll, accounts, and taxes, handled HR (human resources) issues, and trained some assistants. Although I enjoyed it at the time, the only way up was to do exactly the same thing for a bigger company, and I felt I would be bored. Therefore, after a career break to have children, I started to retrain, although I still didn’t know what I really wanted to do. Initially, I decided to pursue a part-time computing degree to see where that led. As soon as I signed up, I managed to get a part-time IT help desk position, helping out college students with their questions. This in turn led to me to setting up as a business software training consultant. I was particularly in demand because I was able to understand advanced needs of business users due to my combination of business experience and technical knowledge of the software.

My training consultancy was a transitional period that let me earn a living combining business and new found technical skills. It also paid for the computing degree, but it was still not enough. I found myself wishing I could do something more with my art and more interesting things with technology too.  After a lot of online research, I found that the answer was to pursue computer graphics and 3D animation. So, I managed to use my training consultancy to pay my way through a part-time Masters in Science degree in Virtual Environments and also train as a 3D artist and animator. In turn, I used that training to earn money and experience doing freelance 3D animation and teaching and also become more skilled with programming technologies.

If all that sounds like a lot of time, effort and training, then you are right! It took a long time, but now I am finally doing exactly what I want. I am now conducting technical research into virtual humans, computer graphics, and animation technologies via my Ph.D. research. I am also working on a cutting-edge technical project funded by the European Commission in the Multimedia and Vision research group led by Professor Ebroul Izquierdo at Queen Mary University of London. The REVERIE (REal and Virtual Engagement in Realistic Immersive Environments) project has an impressive list of partners, so I get to work with a great team at Queen Mary, plus I get to meet with some of the leading researchers across Europe. I love being involved in a project that is developing new technology. So my tale has a happy ending so far, but the path to finding out what I wanted to do was painful, and could have been made easier, if only career advisors had actually given me some advice! Here are 10 tips I wish I had been told along the way:

  1. A career in technology might be a good route for you. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone working in technology (male or female). I had no idea about how to go about getting such a career, and to be honest, it didn’t really occur to me that such careers existed. Even when exposed to a TV show about computer graphics in my early twenties, I didn’t realize that it might be possible for me to follow that path. It was years before I discovered that I was well suited to a career in technology, and in particular computer graphics. If only someone had spotted the obvious from the start. But now-a-days things are different, I hear you cry! I would argue that things still have a way to go. I still regularly meet people who have obvious skills and interests that make them suitable candidates for a career in technology, but they have never thought of it, and no career advisors have suggested it. We are surrounded by technology in our day-to-day lives, so doesn’t it make sense to at least consider technology as a career?
  2. Start networking. Networking can build career contacts that might culminate in a job offer at some point, but can also be invaluable for receiving some mentoring and advice along the way. You can start making contacts by attending seminars, lectures, job fairs, user groups, conferences, and even webinars.  Social media is a great way to find out what is happening too. For example, using Twitter, I have been able to tweet back and forth with people I would never otherwise have the opportunity of talking to, and I have found out about all sorts of networking events.
  3. Research what potential career options are available. It is hard to prepare for a career path and job roles that you do not know exist, but a little bit of homework goes a long way. Networking and asking around is one way, but you can also look at vacancies on company websites regardless of whether or not you are qualified for them. Job ads can give a good indication of whether you might like to aim for such a job in the future. You can also browse through university degree programs, and pay particular attention to the “What our graduates are doing now” sections to get even more ideas.
  4. Learn if a career in technology is really a suitable for you. Leaving one career for another is a risky business, especially if you need to invest time and money for re-training and might have to take a salary cut to get started. At some point you might panic, and wonder if you really can do it. Apart from taking the plunge and giving it a go, the next best thing is doing your homework. Use your network contacts (see tip 2) to talk to people who are working in the field. Don’t be afraid to ask how they got started, what they like or dislike  about their job roles, and if they have any tips for someone just starting out. Be careful not to make a nuisance of yourself or you will lose the contacts as quickly as you get them! Online career and personality profiling tests can also give you some guidance. You can also test the waters by auditing a course, or taking free online classes.
  5. You are not locked into a career because you earned the wrong degree (or lack qualifications). I was brought up in an educational environment that led you to believe that you had to choose the right courses at age 14 in order to take the right courses at 16, in order to take the right exams at 18, in order to get accepted into the right degree course, in order to get the right job. If you didn’t get it right at 14, you were doomed. Crazy thinking! Many employers do not even care what you major in anyway. They care that you have learned qualities and skills that are necessary for the job at hand. But if you do find that not having the right qualifications is a barrier, then find out what skills, qualifications, and experience you need and go get them. You can search online, use your connections you have made through networking, and look at job vacancies in your chosen field to find out what you need. Job vacancy advertisements are particularly good, because they often list the ideal skills and qualifications needed.

    The days are long gone where expensive on-site education is the only path forward, so a good place to start acquiring skills is via free online resources. Some publishers now offer free chapters of textbooks or a library of online books for a relatively inexpensive monthly subscription. A quick look online will also find you a whole host of free online university courses. If you are currently in school, then look for courses that you can audit.

  6. Two wrongs might make a right. If you do not have the right qualifications for a particular job or lack pre-requisites to take a course that will help you get the job, think about the skills, qualifications, and experience that you do have. Can you make a legitimate case to combine your current skills? Can the combination make up for your lack of prerequisites? I applied for two different Masters degree programs, doing just this. I didn’t have the right prerequisites for either program, but got offered a place on both, by making a good case for why my combination of slightly wrong qualifications should count instead of the right ones. Having said that, if you genuinely find that your skills are lacking then go get them. It might not be easy, but it is possible (See tip 4!).
  7. Don’t be discouraged by how long your goal might take. Once you have established what your dream job might be, and looked up exactly what you need to do to get it, you might find yourself discouraged by how long it will take. You might have little time and money to study, and therefore your goal might appear too distant. It would be easy to get discouraged and give up, but one day you will get there if you are persistent. A friend of mine has finally landed a job of his dreams, after pursuing his career change for five years. Five years is a long time, but if you ask him if it was worth it, he will tell you yes! If he hadn’t taken courses and worked hard at his new craft, he would still be five years older, but wouldn’t have his target job.
  8. Look for opportunities to gain experience in your chosen field as soon as possible. Don’t assume you have to finish a degree before starting to gain experience and hopefully earn money in your new field.  When I first decided to change careers to computer science, I landed a part-time job at an IT Help Desk, just because I had signed up for a computing degree. I hadn’t even started the degree yet! Working on the Help Desk helped pay for my degree and provided good experience to go on to bigger and better things. When starting out you can look for internships, freelance jobs, taster days, part-time work, teaching assistant roles, or trainee positions that might pay for your training. If you have chosen a field of technology that lets you work at home with your own equipment, then work on your own projects to build up a portfolio, too.
  9. Find ways to make yourself marketable. If entering a particularly competitive field, look for ways to combine or improve your skills to compete. For example, when I first trained in 3D at Escape Studios in London, I considered becoming a 3D modeler. I loved modeling, and after a rocky start, became respectable at it. However, 3D modeling is a very competitive field, and I quickly realised that respectable just wasn’t going to cut it. I therefore looked for ways to combine my technical and artistic skills to become far more marketable. You can check online for market trends and skill shortages, and check with your network connections that you have built up, too. And don’t forget to do a good job for your current employer, even if it is not the job that you want.  Let’s face it, why should you be trusted to build the next spaceship to Mars if you can’t show up on time to pour coffee?
  10. Those who do it the most, do it the best. This is a tip that I really wish an advisor had told me, and guess what? One actually did! I got this tip from one of my favourite animation mentors, Mark Pullyblank. Mark used to (and still does) say this to help students realise that they need to put time and effort into mastering a skill. Don’t you just hate when a reality show contestant claims they would give anything to be a pop sensation, but they have never had a singing lesson or sung in a choir, family wedding, or school talent show? Clearly they would not give anything at all to pursue their dream!  If you want to be successful in any chosen career, you need to work at it. When I started out learning 3D related skills, I was spectacularly bad. I had to work crazy hard to improve, and then harder still to gain professional level skills. Even now, if I start to lose confidence when something isn’t going right, I remember Mark’s words of advice and just put the hours in. Hard work pays off.

Changing careers is not easy, but it is possible. Research what you want to do wisely, work hard, and be patient and persistent. Good luck in finding your happily ever after career!

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