As the number of folks transitioning into tech from previous careers climbs, I think it's important that we train ourselves to look at our pasts for the catalysts that lead us here. Over the years, I've noticed that the ability to create a coherent narrative out of my personal and employment history has been extremely helpful, both for staying personally motivated and for convincing employers that I'll be a good fit for their team.
Human beings like narratives! Storytelling presents events in a logical, ordered way - as opposed to chaos, which generally makes us anxious. We can take advantage of this mental bias to help ourselves (and our future employers!) see ourselves as on a path to our new careers.
Consider these two stories:
Anna Rankin decided to pursue art in college after a clerical error put her in an "Art 101" class instead of Chorus. After graduating, she spent two years in a government internship doing graphic design. In 2011, she moved to China to teach English to young children. On her return to the USA in 2013, she worked as a Starbucks barista for several months before being rehired by her boss from her former internship. After taking a 12-week coding course, she took a job at the company that ran the class and has worked for them since.
Anna Rankin still remembers her first programming experience at the age of four, when her father taught her how to make randomly sized circles appear on the screen of their monstrous desktop PC. From teaching herself how to code for an online game to creating websites in plain text to showcase her artwork at 12, her activities always tended toward technical creativity. After obtaining her degree in illustration and teaching ESL abroad, she felt herself drawn to both education and programming as a craft. While learning to code at General Assembly, she found a community of like-minded people. She joined their engineering team and now works directly on the ed-tech products that students (just like her in the past) use today!
What differences do you notice between these two descriptions? How does reading each make you feel?
To me, the first of these comes across as sterile; directionless. It's almost like someone took a LinkedIn history and turned it into sentences! There's no real sense of direction or agency. Since there's no reasoning provided for each new career choice, I might even think this Anna person is a bit flighty or scatter-brained.
The second tells a strong, coherent story with descriptive, relevant examples from the past. It leaves out irrelevant details in order to paint a concise picture of who I am now and what's important to me. More than that, it seems like a reasonable progression to a logical conclusion.
You have a vast number of experiences that form who you are by the time you're an adult—the ones you choose to focus on shape who you are now. I'm not asking you to retcon your personal history or make things up to seem like a better potential employee, but instead, to sift through the things that are important to you and showcase them as steps toward to your current goal.
For example: If you're coming into technology as an artist, what processes and perspectives do you bring to programming? If you're a former chef, what analogies can you draw from your past experience to your current pursuits? Have you navigated difficult interpersonal relationships with skill and aplomb? No matter what field you come from, chances are that you learned something you can apply to your new career.
I still remember my first job interview. I was terrified; going in for a graphic design internship as a traditional (pastel, paint) artist. My interviewer (and later boss) hit me with a tough question:
"Why should I hire you when you don't have any experience with graphic design? What sets you apart from the applicants who have already worked with the programs we use?"
I told her that my experience as an illustrator and my ability to compose evocative images set me apart - that a program was just a tool, and I was confident that I could create quality graphics regardless of the medium (not nearly this eloquently I am so sure). My boss told me years later that this answer was why she chose me for the role. My ability to frame my capability in terms of my existing experience literally got me the job.
Framing your journey as a story can also help a lot with personal motivation. When all you can see in your history feels like a jumble of unrelated jobs and irrelevant skills, it's easier to get overwhelmed and want to throw in the towel. Discovering a consistent narrative is calming; inspiring. Looking back at my past through the lens of that second bio, it almost seems like landing at my current job was an inevitable result of everything that led up to it. In the same way, your past has been leading you inexorably toward exactly where you are now!
In her book "Rocking the Boat," Debra Meyerson presents her research into how individual and systemic change is created in organizations. When discussing how powerful it is to frame small wins as part of larger initiatives, she notes that "...people's understanding of what an action means can be every bit as important as the action itself." This holds true for our personal histories as well! Without framing, the events in your past are just stark facts, ready to be interpreted in any way your audience sees fit. As the only person in the world who has lived your life, you are the best suited individual to provide context on how it's unfolding. Providing this context gives you the power to assign specific meaning to your existence rather than letting other people define you.
As an experiment, I'd like you to try and create yourself a quick elevator pitch (three to five sentences). Ask yourself these questions:
- Can you remember the first experience that interested you in technology? What was that like?
- What parts of your past experience or employment have prepared you to become a technologist? What are you really good at? What are you excited to bring to a team?
- What moves you? What are you really excited about for the present or future?
I learned how to write a good bio and present my story in a compelling way at Global Diversity CFP day and Write/Speak/Code events—two excellent organizations ♥ Also, if you're in the market for a job, I highly recommend this read on showing off your hireability (and also this talk on storytelling because it's also good) from the inimitable Catt Small!