This blog was written by Lisa Crosbie, Microsoft Business Applications MVP. Lisa shares how it feels to go from expert to novice, building a network from scratch, learning through a firehose, and why superpower skills are the most important thing.
When you make a mid-life career change, the first time you hear someone introduce their credentials by saying “I’ve been doing this for 20 years” is very confronting. That’s the moment you take stock and realise you may never get to say that, and it’s time to get brave and creative and establish your expertise and credentials in other ways.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a librarian. Beyond that, I never really had any idea what I wanted to be when I “grew up” and I struggled with how I could ever make a career choice when I was equally interested in and good at both STEM and languages. After an unenthusiastic start with maths and computer science at university, I majored in linguistics and fulfilled my childhood dream of becoming a librarian, and then moved into my new dream career of book publishing.
I had an incredibly fulfilling career, working my way through the ranks to a senior management role. I spent 15 years at Oxford University Press, a dream come true for a long-time language and dictionary nerd. In my first role there, I got paid to visit bookshops and talk about dictionaries all day; now an incredible story of a different time, and a role that was and will always be a career highlight for me. Books were my first love. Even after all that time, the excitement of being in that place where such incredible books were made never wore off.
Unfortunately, my timing was less than perfect, having reached a mid-life career peak in an industry I loved but which was suffering death by a thousand cuts. Books will never die, but the onset of digital and new competitors meant costs went up as revenue stagnated and I found myself almost entirely focused on finding savings and efficiencies. I had stopped learning and growing and was struggling to see the future of my career. Many people talk about career change in mid-life, but very few do it – it’s a tough leap to make. By that stage of life, you’ve established yourself in a field, you have a network and a reputation, a family and/or financial commitments, and a relatively comfortable position of expertise.
I had a now or never moment, and the full support of my family. Life had taught me that there were no guarantees, and that you need to seize the moment when you can. So, I chose now.
I took a massive leap that made no sense on paper, resigning from my big job and taking a contract role with the Dynamics 365 partner who had been our consultants. A year later I jumped right into the deep end at Barhead Solutions, just as Power Apps were gaining traction, and Dynamics 365 was getting major investment. The timing for my second career choice could not have been better, riding the wave of massive growth and innovation in Microsoft Business Applications. I took the approach of “say yes and figure it out” and started learning through a firehose. Going from expert to novice is unsettling and scary. I was so far out of my comfort zone, but I found resourcefulness and creativity beyond what I knew I was capable of. I joined conversations online and found myself part of a community of extraordinary people, building an entirely new network from scratch. I had awesome colleagues who were willing to help and share, and I wasn’t afraid to ask “dumb” questions.
When I was considering career change, I read a lot of advice on finding my transferrable skills. The reality is that you have no idea what’s valuable in your desired new industry, or the terminology for it, until you get there. I wish I could go back and tell my previous self that “I came from the customer side” was the magic phrase to open doors.
Rather than transferrable skills, the real thing to focus on in changing careers is your “superpower” skills. What do you take for granted that might be rare in your new industry? When you work for the world’s largest dictionary publisher, great communication skills are pretty much an entry requirement, but in tech, they have helped me stand out. I have done more proofreading and writing in tech than I ever did in my former career.
I discovered my other superpower skill is my love of learning – a constant desire, ability, and commitment to learn a lot, quickly, often in my free time. When I first landed outside my comfort zone, I had a steep learning curve. Once I learned how to be comfortable outside my comfort zone (another superpower skill) I deliberately put myself on that steep learning curve over and over again. I looked back on my notes this week at jobs I was considering applying for in 2017. There is one there called “Technical Evangelist”, with my annotation ruling it out because it was too technical. That is now my day job.
Now 5 years in, I no longer find it confronting that I can’t say I’ve been doing this for 20 years, because I have found my strength in being uniquely me. In fact, I do have 20 years’ experience – skills in leadership, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, and building trust, just applied in completely different ways.
Best of all, there is still so much learning to do and so much to explore in this huge world outside my comfort zone, and that’s a very good place to be.
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