I remember the day my boss told me I would never be an engineer. I was sitting on an itchy gray wool sofa in a glass-walled conference room, hands under my knees, eyes on the floor. I looked up startled at the words: “You want to be an engineer, don’t you? Well, you’re never going to be one.” The possibility had actually never crossed my mind, which made the accusation more intriguing than insulting, so I just laughed and shrugged it off. Looking back, I see the young woman on that couch. And while I hardly recognize her, I know now that she is a future engineer.
In college I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I ended up with a liberal arts degree and no clear direction. After a period of unemployment I found a job at a startup, but I received a lot of negative feedback which I felt was entirely my fault. My self-confidence was at an all-time low when a colleague laughingly commented that I was a like a child who needed to skip a grade. She could see that I needed more of a challenge and greater freedom to do work on things I was passionate about. My perspective suddenly shifted from feeling that I didn’t fit in and didn’t deserve to be there to seeing I had potential. At the urging of mentors I started several Udacity classes alongside other projects to improve my technical skills and empower myself to solve the problems I cared about.
From the beginning it was apparent this was not going to be easy. By forcing myself outside my comfort zone my growth accelerated but I was still frequently slamming into walls. I know we all have pain we need to heal. We all have fears to overcome. But there is nothing particularly sad about linear algebra, so why were there tears in my eyes all the time? I caught myself thinking “Why don’t I already know this? Why am I not picking this up faster?” and realized that my pride and frustration were getting in the way of just doing the work I needed to do. I had to put in the time, ask questions, teach others, and enjoy the process, instead of dreaming of an end-result where suddenly everything would make sense.
It took me three years, but I’m a Data Analyst now. I fought hard to get here, and those days of keywording photos are long behind me. Here are the ten steps I took to change my career, and my life:
1. Ignore your assigned desk and go sit upstairs next to the team you want to be on. For two and a half years.
2. Give rubber duckies to EVERYONE in your office. Make friends.
3. Check the job listings at your company. If you see the job you want, note the requirements and apply.
5. Stop shaving your legs so that you have five more minutes a day to study linear algebra and machine learning.
6. There will always be those who don’t believe in you. You might even be one of them. Fight your inner demons.
7. Show your passion for your company by questioning everything and everyone, bosses included. Think up new possibilities and push your team beyond local maxima.
8. Present what you want to your boss using the hot dogs or hamburgers method. These are the options I’m okay with. Nothing else should be on the table.
9. Do the impossible things your mentors ask of you. Public speaking, coding projects, answering questions on Quora; if they aren’t constantly pushing you out of your comfort zone, get a new mentor. I never could have done it without them.
10. Ask for it. Again.
The magical thing about number six, is that when you believe in yourself, other people do too. After witnessing my personal growth and watching how hard I was working on my classes, my former boss actually became one of my biggest advocates. We now joke about that day on the couch two years ago, and about the fact that ever since that day I’ve been driven to face down challenges, master new skills, and—with trust in mentors—draw deeper on my own wells than I ever thought possible.
In addition to classes from Udacity, I encourage anyone interested in changing careers to push yourself to do research, enter competitions, to write, and to teach others. Your future self will thank you. We can do all extraordinary things, but it requires long-term sustained effort. Embracing the idea that “anything worth doing is outside your comfort zone” (Steli Efti, Founder and CEO, Close.io) changed my life. Write it down and remember, learning doesn’t stop the day you get the job.