Courtney at a Glance
Profession: Part-time engineering student and self-described “doer of things” for Cowork Frederick
Contact Info: firstname.lastname@example.org
Personal Motto: “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” Stephen King
Why she chooses to cowork: “Because only at Cowork can I use a banana as a phone in my headshot.”
We’re shaking things up this month! Instead of interviewing another Cowork Frederick member this month I’ll be sharing about my personal (ongoing) experience changing career paths.
Managing a Career Change
What do you do when you realize your current career is at a dead end? Pivoting professions can be a messy and daunting process. It is easy to get overwhelmed in the details moving from where you are to where you want to be. I’m still in the thick of my own career change, but I wanted to share how I’m navigating the switch from the culinary world to the engineering and technology industry and share my top tips for handling the chaos that comes along with a big career change.
From Kitchens to Coding
It was early November 2018 when I realized that while I loved running and working in professional kitchens, the career I was establishing in the culinary world was incompatible with the life I wanted to build for myself and my daughter. A decade prior I had been just a few semesters shy of finishing an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park when, burnt out and discouraged by a conversation with my academic advisor, I decided to change majors and academic institutions. I transferred to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design.
Through my twenties as I started a family and experimented with careers in various creative fields the dreaded “what if” followed me. What if I had finished that engineering degree? What if I had a career in a field that challenged me both intellectually and creatively?
Returning to such a challenging program after so much time off was a daunting prospect, but eventually I realized the risk of failing spectacularly in pursuit of a career in science was far better than a life lived with regret. Once I’d made the decision to make a change I got in contact with UMD’s engineering program and took a serious look at my strengths and weaknesses as a former student.
Computer programming and I had not been on good terms in college. Unfortunately for me, it was a critical skill for success both as a student and in the industry. The concepts just didn’t come naturally. Watching my peers seem to effortlessly complete their projects under tight deadlines while I struggled to cobble together a line or two of code that wouldn’t return an error only compounded my frustration. I knew that this time around conquering my aversion to coding would be essential to my success. I needed to learn to code, and I needed to do it in a way that worked for me.
I decided to learn Python, a programming language known for being easy to learn but also highly useful in the engineering industry. After researching several self-paced learning options I came across Codecademy. Codecademy’s paid courses provided plenty of structure and practice projects but let me learn at my own pace. Without the need to earn a passing grade, plenty of time to understand each concept, and no classmates with whom to compare my progress, I realized that (surprise surprise!) I actually enjoy programming.
Setting Myself Up for Success
Once I decided to return to school it became clear that the demanding and often unpredictable schedule that went with kitchen work was incompatible with rigorous academic and independent learning efforts. It was very tempting to accept any job that would pay the bills and provide flexible hours, but I had made a rule for myself to pass on positions that were resume fillers and hold out for one that would help move my career forward. Luckily, my patience paid off.
In February 2019 I began working for Cowork Frederick as a part-time employee. At first glance, helping run a coworking space might seem to have little in common with a future in technology, but the position was designed specifically for someone in the process of starting their own business or exploring a career change. With flexible hours, access to member events, and the requirement to lead a project that would compliment my professional interests as well as the Cowork Frederick community, this was exactly the sort of job I’d been holding out for.
Discovering the Importance of Community
One of the big mistakes I made the first time I was in college was not getting involved in communities that supported my academic efforts. I thought keeping my schedule focused solely on coursework would make me a better student. What it actually made me was bored and disconnected from any type of community that would feed my professional growth.
Since resuming my studies I am continually looking for new ways to dip my toes in the tech industry and take my experience beyond the classroom. I’ve attended makerspace groups, programming meetups, and even spent a weekend at a game jam creating a game to test my growing Python skills. In trying a bit of everything I’ve exposed myself to new ideas and become part of a community of professionals, students, and technology enthusiasts. These are people I can ask questions of, be inspired by, or simply nerd out over a recent discovery.
This spring, in addition to classwork and participating in community organized events, I’m creating a self-sustainable community garden at Cowork Frederick using solar power and an automated irrigation system of my own design. (If you’re interested in participating in any stage of this project, please let me know!)
Embracing the Journey Over the Destination
Most days I wake up excited to have made the choice to change careers, but there are days and even weeks when I’m overwhelmed by the work that lies ahead. It is during those times that being a part of a community is most important. Having people that cheer me on through all of the ups and downs makes the highs higher and the lows easier to manage. They are my sounding board, my biggest supporters, and remind me to appreciate every day that makes up this process.
My Top Tips For Managing a Career Change
- Identify your weaknesses and tackle those so they don’t trip you up down the road.
- Set long term and short term goals and check in with those regularly. I love this planner for managing my time and goals.
- Learn how to learn! Coursera has an awesome free class on learning.
- Get involved in communities that share your interests.
- Identify projects you can do to support your learning efforts.
- Build a support network that will celebrate your victories and cheer you on when things get tough.