I joke sometimes that I forget I work for a for-profit company.
I’ve been in the workforce full-time for eight years, but this is a first for me. After working on a few political campaigns, I moved full-time into government work, first at the state level, then at the federal level for a member of the House of Representatives, and later for the sprawling New York City government.
During that period of my career, I worked with a lot smart, motivated people who loved their jobs and never planned to leave government. Many felt that robust union protections and pensions made it crazy to consider leaving. Others could have drawn bigger paychecks in the private sector, but prioritized the work-life balance that government work makes possible, or were simply more driven by mission than money.
Regardless, the option for a public sector career is fading. Once considered a safe place to build a lifelong career, government agencies at all levels (federal, state, and local) are shrinking, possibly for good. Tax revenues are down across the country, and many government organizations are funded at lower levels every year. From the federal sequester to the bankruptcy of Detroit, the days when you could start a government job and rise steadily through the ranks until retirement are over.
By 2013, the decline in government services had become a trend unlikely to reverse. I heeded the warnings and decided to make the leap to the private sector. I had a ton of contacts and presumably transferrable skills, and figured I had the savvy to execute a crossover. What I realized very quickly is that my network, while large, was more closed than I realized. What really surprised—and worried—me was that many of the private sector people I met were wary of my ability to innovate and even my work ethic.
The path I ultimately took from the public sphere to the startup world was different than I anticipated. Here are a few lessons I learned along the way.
It was clear to me after only a few interviews that my background—communications, public policy, government relations—made me attractive in other industries, but not attractive enough to get someone to take a chance on me. It was equally clear that employers were hungry for people with a blend of the PR skills I had and the technical skills I didn’t have. Government organizations place a premium on security and stability, so in my experience, information technology usually existed in its own silo. The structure didn’t demand people with technical and non-technical skills, so it had never occurred to me to branch out.
As I began talking to people, I saw that tech work was baked into an increasing number of job descriptions. So, I decided to enroll in a three-month web development course. When I emerged, I was a good candidate for a junior developer job, but an even better candidate for a communications director position in the tech industry.
While a traditional graduate degree can be a great way to move industries, my new skills came with a much lower price tag and shorter time commitment. Options for free and low-cost learning abound: online courses, certificate programs at your local community college, professional development opportunities at your current job, or non-traditional long-form programs like the course I completed at General Assembly. This is a great way to explore a potential new industry or to bolster your credentials without taking significant time away from the workforce.
Write Your Story
I learned quickly that spending time crafting the story of who you are and what you want to do is crucial. I spoke to a lot of employers who thought my industry jump was gutsy and respected me for it, but I still had to prove that I was thoughtful rather than flighty. This meant walking them through my game plan, demonstrating that I had done my research, and being specific about how I thought my skills would translate to a new industry.
Messaging here is key. Even if you’re thinking, “I’m afraid my job will disappear, and I need to get ahead of it,” it’s important to find an active and positive way to characterize your move. Talk about why you want to transition to a particular industry, not just any other industry. For example, my narrative was typically something like this: “My favorite part of working in public policy has always been developing person-centered solutions; you have to really understand at a tangible level how a policy will impact someone. I’m really intrigued by the startup world’s ability to innovate, fail fast, and iterate as companies try to create the right product for users. I think my thoughtfulness about the user experience of an individual would be a great asset in a startup as it matures.”
This demonstrated that I had some perspective on my skills and had thought critically about how they could be useful in another industry.
Take Your Time
One of the keys to my successful career shift was giving myself enough time to do my research. Obviously, not everyone can stop working for three months, but having some time away from my old job to focus on my future made all the difference. My web development program was particularly intense (9-to-5 with projects every night and all weekend), so I was completely immersed in the subject matter. I think this was important for two reasons. First, I met dozens of people in the tech industry, which gave me constant opportunities to ask questions about the job market and startup culture. It got me very used to the language of the industry and allowed me to get constant feedback on my skill level. Not to mention, I had a lot of contacts by the end.
Second, I think dispensing with the safety net of my old job forced me to persevere. Learning to code was hard. I could foresee how the plans for my future might slip away if I had the option of retreating to what I knew and was comfortable with.
If you can’t swing a true break from work, you can still do this to some extent by setting aside time in your schedule to focus on your career change. Spend time every week doing informational interviews with contacts. Give yourself a quota so you stay on track; it’s easy to let the inertia of your current job become an ongoing distraction. I also had great success attending Meetups, which I had always thought sounded awkward. The tech industry has a robust Meetup culture, but absolutely every other professional group has a network of people that uses this site to meet regularly. I attended dozens of Meetups and networked with people at every stage of their careers. At every one of them, I felt completely welcome and always walked away with some advice and a few contacts.
Changing industries might sound a little terrifying, but it can actually be an empowering experience. Remember that while people in other industries know things you don’t, you similarly bring a perspective that they don’t have. Once you find confidence in that, you can approach your move from a position of strength.