Career changes are huge, but you don’t have to go into them blind. In this article I’ll discuss some strategies I’ve used recently to evaluate a change in careers, figure out if you might like the change, find ways to safely practice and grow the skills you’d need, and then finally potentially make that leap in changing your career.

Why am I writing this? For the first time in 14 years my primary job will no longer revolve around writing code. Instead of being a developer or even a development manager, I am hanging up my mechanical keyboard to join Tech Elevator, a regional software development bootcamp, as an instructor.

I’m not making this change blindly and I want to share some of the steps I’ve taken in recent years to investigate this and mitigate risks from such a huge change so you can apply them to your own careers.

Let’s explore some of the little things you can do to explore your options before committing, and make sure a career change is right for you.

Understanding Yourself

First of all, you need to understand yourself and what you like. For me, the things I love includes:

  • Building new things
  • Improving things
  • Calming down those who are upset
  • Seeing people grow
  • Explaining things in a way that others can learn new things
  • Seeing people and products make a difference
  • Learning new things
  • Finding new ways of applying old things
  • Sharing insights with others

Looking at this list it’s no wonder I got into software engineering and it’s also no wonder why I moved on to management; I wanted to invest in products and people, and I did.

However, over time, I discovered that I cared more about improving people that I did about improving products or technologies. Because of this I started to investigate careers that might let me focus more on teaching and investing.

What you care about is likely going to be different than what I care about. That’s okay. What matters is that you think about what you do care about and how these things shape you and your decisions.

Unless you understand yourself you’re unlikely to set a goal that is going to be beneficial to you in the long term.

Understanding the Target

Now that you know a little bit more about what you might want to look at, it’s time to look at what it would take to get there. For example, as a software engineer it would’ve been very hard for me to move directly into teaching.

I recommend finding someone who’s already doing what you are considering or is very familiar with it and conducting an informational interview. This is a fancy phrase for sitting down with someone and asking them a structured set of questions about what you’re trying to do.

In my case, a former coworker now directs a bootcamp campus and is responsible for managing the instructors at that site. I was able to sit down with her and ask her more about the types of skills and activities that her instructors rely on every day. While much of this was common sense, there was enough in there to give me a new perspective.

We also had a frank conversation about where I was and where I might need to be in order to teach down the road, and we periodically revisited that discussion over the years.

You may not have worked with someone who’s now close to the role you’re considering, so it can help to stay connected with others in the area who may be able to help you. This is an area where LinkedIn and other networking strategies can be helpful.

Building the Skills you’ll Need

Now that you’ve identified more of what you want to do and the skills you’ll need to do it, you should start exploring how to practice with these without quitting your day job.

In my case, I knew I would need to work on my verbal communication as well as thinking about how to explain things to others in a way that can be easily understood. I also knew that leaving active software development might be difficult, and I would need to experiment with how I would handle not being able to code in my day-to-day job.

Communicating and teaching were easy to address: I started writing and speaking. I looked for chances to teach others on a more formal basis inside and outside of my job. I also started writing, though this started as a way of earning more opportunities to speak. These opportunities allowed me to see what worked and what didn’t as well as how much I enjoyed it.

Experimenting with losing development time was harder. Thankfully, as a manager, there are often times when I get few opportunities to code. In these particular periods my exposure to coding came solely through my writing activities outside of work. Ultimately, I found that this was enough to address my concerns.

Your skill gaps may not be as easy to address as mine were. You may need to take some proactive steps such as talking to your manager about new activities that you could do in your day job. If that doesn’t work, you could always look for opportunities to volunteer outside of work. For example, I volunteered at a local tutoring program for the last five years and this has helped me understand what I do and don’t like about teaching.

Looking before you Leap

Once you feel you have enough skills and experience to pursue a new opportunity, don’t forget the interviews work both ways. Look for people you can talk to both inside and outside of the official hiring process. These people will be able to address the potential concerns that you have as well as filling in missing information.

This is another area where networking comes in handy. For example I was able to rely on some connections I’d made at local conferences to talk to others inside of the organization I was interviewing with, get their own perspective, and get answers to questions I hadn’t even asked yet – without the full pressure of a formal interview. In fact, by the time we had the formal interview, I largely knew what I was getting into (though I still learn plenty of new things).

Closing Thoughts

Ultimately, moving on to a new career is a risk. You could be worse at something than you thought, aspects of your new role might unpleasantly surprise you, or it could simply take you a long time to get up to speed.

Of course, this works both ways, and you can also find yourself loving your new role and finding a lot of fulfillment in it. No job or career will be perfect for any individual, but by doing your homework up front you can minimize the risk of pursuing an opportunity you don’t love, and begin to build the skills you’d need for what’s next years before you get there.

What I can tell you is that career changes don’t have to be sudden. Yes, finally interviewing, accepting an offer, and giving notice is huge and frightening, but the baby steps leading up to that can give you the confidence you need to pursue your dreams – or tell you enough to keep you away from something that is wrong for you.