Is Useless Work Experience a Real Thing?
Think-Piece by Centriq Instructor Jenna Beckett
A career change is a scary leap. One of the biggest deterrents keeping individuals from making such a leap is arguably the thought that they “would have to start from scratch”. However, is that reality? Actually, is that even possible?
From the first day of your first job, you start crafting your lens of professional experience. Each lesson learned, each achievement, and each failure adds a new filter to your lens. When you decide to make a career change, you do not automatically reset your filter. You are still looking at the world with the professional perception that started being developed on day one. Therefore, the line of thought that says you will have to start from scratch seems inherently flawed.
Now seems the appropriate time to start wondering what perpetuates the idea that changing careers means starting from scratch. I believe that this misconception is spread because many companies and individuals focus their attention on the “happy path” narrative that exists for most careers.
What is the “happy path?” A career happy path represents the most typical way a person enters a specific field, like a student enrolling in a technical college, attaining a computer science degree, then entering the technology workforce directly after graduation. Happy paths are often seen in mature industries where avenues for entry are limited. Many experts believe we need to redefine this journey, noting that young professionals should be guided towards a messy path that offers learning opportunities and new experiences.
Following the happy path for any career indoctrinates the person in the theologies and methodologies of an industry. A way of thinking is created. An outlook on the world that is largely specific to the status quo of an industry. What is wrong with flooding an industry with happy pathers? In a word: stagnation.
The perception that potential employees must follow a “happy path” to be considered for entry into a new field limits the flow of ideas and cross pollination of concepts that could very well revolutionize the way an industry operates. Individuals who started their professional careers in unrelated industries bring with them the status quo of their previous professional life. Their outlook has been shaped by different methodologies; and therefore, the status quo of their destination industry is put under a new microscope. It is likely that these non-happy pathers will examine and analyze everyday business processes with increased scrutiny. The way they tackle problems or opportunities might possibly be foreign to current industry standards. Their lack of indoctrination in the industry’s status quo sets these individuals in a uniquely advantageous position in which change could be initiated simply by looking at the world with their eyes.
The IT industry is a unique case study for the success of non-happy pathers. There are many avenues that potential career changers can follow to achieve a shortened path to a new career. While the IT industry certainly has a happy path, there seems to be more of a balance between happy pathers and non-happy pathers, especially in startup environments. Is it coincidence that the industry best known for living and breathing innovation is also extremely diverse when it comes to career progression? I would argue no.
The IT industry gives itself a leg up in one very important way: talent evaluation. For a large majority of positions in the IT field, especially in programming, companies focus on an applicant’s ability to prove their skills (through tests or technical interviews, for example) as opposed to relying on degrees or employment history. This shift in talent evaluation sets non-happy pathers on an equal playing field with their counterparts. The benefits of this school of thought can extend beyond just career progression and into demographic segmentations of applicants. Younger applicants, whether they are self-taught or right out of college, face a more manageable “experience” hurdle because they are given an opportunity to demonstrate the skills they claim to have mastered. Furthermore, if all past professional experience is viewed valuable and relevant, then students first entering the workforce can leverage experience gained from internships or part time positions to set themselves apart from the competition.
However, an industry cannot survive on non-happy pathers alone. The potential of non-happy pathers is only realized when their skills meet an industry’s status quo, which is established by those who are able to persist the theoretical concepts and industry domain knowledge that is typically taught in higher education environments. Furthermore, industries that do not have a steady supply of resources that are aware and cautious of past lessons learned are doomed to repeat history’s mistakes in a continual loop. Happy pathers are just as essential to an industry’s success as non-happy pathers. Revolution without a genesis is simply invention, which is advantageous for entrepreneurship but is the antithesis of longevity.
What steps can an industry take to create avenues for non-happy pathers? Well, the first step is to invest. Companies must be willing to invest time and human resources into a paradigm shift in talent recruitment and evaluation. If the equation for potential applicants is proven abilities equals successful hire, then irrelevant work experience is baseless. Each professional experience alters an individual’s outlook through the addition of new skills, the extension of existing skills, or simply by providing an opportunity to hone in a skill set. Regardless, the individual’s lens of perception gains another unique layer. That must then be followed up with an investment in onboarding and training resources, such as a mentorship program, that sets the stage for success.
The burden of change does not rest purely on the shoulders of companies. The onus of proof of potential success in any position rests on the applicant. An individual must learn to be a champion of their own cause by putting in the effort to analyze past positions and extrapolate the professional skills gained. They must then follow that up by taking the time to do in depth research on the companies they are applying to in order to educate themselves on what these companies are trying to achieve in their respective markets. An applicant can then deliver proof of concept of their ability to fulfill a position by relating their past professional skills directly to the obstacles that a company may face when working towards their goals.
There is nothing that will remove the risk and uncertainty associated with making a career shift. However, having the knowledge that all previous professional experience is carried forward and considered relevant creates a bit more of a stable platform to jump off of when making a big leap.
Jenna Beckett is a Full Stack Web Developer Instructor at Centriq Training. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.