When a new career doesn’t go the way you expect
Originally written for One HeathTech: a community about diversity, inclusivity, openness, and kindness for under-represented groups in healthtech, healthIT, digital health, biotech and medtech.
Let’s talk about career paths. Except, instead of thinking of it as a brick path that you follow, envision it as deliberate steps you take, one foot after another, in a grassy field. You can certainly have goals — the fence at the other side, a certain position, moving into a different field, or having a really good explore and being an expert in this field — but appreciate how much you learn from every step, and how in 2020 we are empowered to pick our directions.
I worked in the NHS as a MSc-level trained occupational therapist. Interested in the future of digital public health, I left and retrained as a software developer at a bootcamp, which took 3 months, and then worked at the bootcamp as a coach for a while to consolidate my skills, until I found the health tech company I was really passionate about. I worked as a developer for another 9 months, then pivoted to the product team and worked as a technical writer and product owner.
Isn’t that a nice story?
I’m even more proud of it when I remember I managed to put my husband through uni during this time as a mature student with very little funding, and continued doing bits of volunteering on the side. But this curated tale is what I tend to tell recruiters or people who ask the age-old “so what do you do?” question without remembering that most people 30 or under often wear at least 3 different hats and are multi-hyphenate professionals. It is exactly what I’d like to dismantle in the hopes I can support others who have had (or will have) a similar experience. You see, I changed careers and didn’t like it.
I can only really speak about the web development side of software, as that’s what I learnt (and, as a matter of preference, I’m loath to call myself a software engineer as I’m married to an electrical and electronic engineer and making websites and apps at junior level isn’t really engineering). I hedged a decent bet that I would enjoy web dev as I knew from previous work experience that I have two core values: I like solving problems, and I like helping people. Granted, these plus my skills map to numerous roles and potential careers, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? And the bootcamp, unusually, offered deferred payment which was the only way for me. I genuinely believe in trying things, but having the emotional wherewithal and insight to call it a day if it doesn’t work out. But I really thought I’d picked a winner with development.
For starters, the work environment. I’m fairly introverted and actually found, for all my deep love of the NHS and public health in general — still a core motivator for me — patient-facing work contributed hugely to my burnout (that’s another thing I tend not to mention, and would like to normalise: work-related burnout). Being a dev is largely computer-based, but not worrisomely isolated; you never really work alone, your code gets checked by other people, I was lucky to work at a company where everyone was friendly and we worked together, you interact with the Product Manager and Tech Lead and the Customer Care Team and lots of people daily. But it’s nowhere near the heroic levels of intense, unguardedly human stakeholder management I was doing in A&E, in the community, in clinics, on the wards.
The work itself aligned more with the types of challenge and growth I wanted. After my NHS Trust turned down my application to continue part time (NIHR fellowship, so 50% clinical work and backfilled 50% PhD study) as understaffing levels were so bad, I became grossly disillusioned with how much I would be academically challenged and be able to pursue one of the types of growth I valued so much. Being a developer is a masterclass in handling “I don’t know”. Any developer, especially the most experienced, will tell you there are things they don’t know how to do, but they get to learn and work them out. This was hugely important to me; I want to learn every day, if I can.
There were other reasons, but for the sake of brevity, those were the two most pressing.
So why didn’t I like it?
It boils down to one thing: my imposter syndrome. It was so horrible, and so insurmountable, I left the profession. Looking back, there are things which didn’t really fit anyway; I felt totally isolated from the end user (for my company this was care agencies, and their clients, elderly people living at home, and ensuring they were safe and well-cared for) as I spent most of my day looking at code. I hadn’t realised how important it was to me to see the impact of what I was doing. If you’ve read Adam Grant’s wonderful book “Give And Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success”, you’ll be able to identify which type of person I am.
I also felt totally isolated in my team. Software, across the board in the UK & US, is predominantly white cis males from similar socioeconomic backgrounds bootstrapping each other’s careers. I found it impossible to even get a female mentor, let alone someone non-binary. I was also very junior and found there to not really be much infrastructure to support me — though my colleagues went out of their way to try, which I appreciate.
But I pushed for a good 6 months before I decided I didn’t want to keep pushing. I flagged it, said I wanted to try for another 8 weeks with extra xyz in support, and continued to cry every day because I couldn’t do the work, I felt terrible, like a total burden and an absolute thicko, and felt very lonely despite trying so hard to reach out and create a support network. So I offered the company a different configuration of my wide range of skills, which would fill some gaps for them. I’m now looking for a new role in tech writing, research or policy for health and social care (especially older adult care) and I’ve taken away a lot of good things from this experience — not just the technical knowledge, and a network of wonderful colleagues, but a real appreciation for my strengths and preferences.
You never really hear this narrative of “I changed careers and I didn’t like it” (which made me feel like even more of a pariah) and perhaps if I had given it more time and had more support, I would have liked it. But I’m happy I tried, I’m happy I moved on, and I’m happy to help others in a similar situation.