Seven Tips for Pursuing a New Career Outside IT

Life in IT can be thankless, but you don't have to suffer. A 25-year IT veteran turned professional coach offers advice on how she and many other technical professionals found fulfillment and fortune outside IT.

Let's face it: Life in IT can be thankless. Your work often goes unnoticed, unless you do something wrong. You put in long hours, working evenings and weekends. Expectations are high. Users are seldom happy with results.

Believe me, I understand. I spent more than 25 years in IT, having started as a systems developer and ending as director of career development in a high-tech consulting company. As my career in IT evolved, I realized I enjoyed management and staff development more than technical work. After the IT downturn of 2001, I decided to begin a new career as a professional coach.

It's easy to tire of a career in IT. I've talked with dozens of technical professionals who say they are burned out or who no longer feel challenged by their jobs. Many more senior professionals are forced to consider a job outside the field after being laid off and finding it difficult to land a new job, either because their skills aren't in demand or employers don't want to pay for their experience.

You don't have to suffer in IT. If you've ever considered a career outside the profession, the following seven steps will help you make your move. They worked for me and many others, as you'll see.

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1. Identify your interests: What do you like to do?

Tom Prince knew he wanted to do something besides sell CRM software when he was Siebel's vice president of sales, but he had no idea what. After he left Siebel in 2002, he and his wife Mary decided to investigate the possibility of opening a restaurant. They loved good food, dined out often and understood their local, Boston-area market well. They partnered with Lorenzo Savona, a former general manager of two chic restaurants in Boston, who had been planning to build a restaurant similar to the one Tom and Mary Prince envisioned. In 2004, they opened Tomasso Trattoria in Southborough, Mass. Today, they also run Panzano Provviste e Vino, a market and wine shop next door to the restaurant.

"There's so much disillusionment in high-tech. You rarely get the feeling that you're selling people something they really want," says Tom Prince. "Here, we're providing something that people actually know and care about—something that people really want. Food affects their sight, their smell, their taste, their touch, all of their senses."

If you don't have a clear idea of what you want to do, start by evaluating your existing position. Make a list of everything you love and hate about your current job. Use those likes and dislikes to form criteria for a new career. Look for opportunities that feature the things you love but not the things you hate. For instance, if you love your job because of your relationship with your clients, look for jobs that focus on customer service. Or, if you love being the expert and sharing your knowledge, teaching is a possibility.

Also think about what you do in your spare time. What do you enjoy doing most? What is it about these activities that makes them enjoyable? If you love dogs, consider starting a boarding, grooming or training business. If you practice yoga, find out what it would take to become an instructor. Brainstorm ways you can make a career out of your passions the way that the Princes did with food.

2. Leverage your strengths: What do you do well?

For 24 years, Norman Daoust worked in corporate IT roles, except during a sabbatical when he focused on his music. Daoust plays fretted instruments—the guitar, electric bass, banjo and mandolin. After three years of trying to make a living as a musician he decided to return to corporate IT, only to remember exactly why he left before: the inability of large, bureaucratic organizations to embrace and manage change. He had to get out, but instead of going back to music, he opted for consulting in his area of expertise, information modeling and systems integration. He prepared for that transition by participating in several consulting workshops. When he was laid off from his corporate job in 2001, he took the leap. Seven years later he has built a successful consulting practice with many clients and the freedom to make his own schedule, including time for his music.

A great tool you can use to identify your strengths is the book StrengthsFinder 2.0. When you buy it, you get a code to take the StrengthsFinder assessment online at no additional cost.

3. Assess your options: What could you do that reflects your interests and leverages your strengths?

Tom McGoldrick performed many roles during his 30 years in IT: systems programmer, project manager, department manager and senior vice president. He left IT in 2002 during a downsizing. When he stepped back to look at his life, he realized how much his career had taken him away from his family. He and his wife Sue Ann decided to look into running their own business.

They considered more than 1,200 different businesses and eventually narrowed the list down to six. One option was inspired by their beloved pet Labrador retriever, Apollo, who had a champion bloodline. They considered breeding dogs, but further research showed they couldn't make a living at it. When Apollo unexpectedly died, they looked for a burial/cremation facility that would provide Apollo with the honor and respect the McGoldricks felt he deserved. They discovered Paws in Heaven and were very pleased with the care and attention Apollo received there.

In 2003, the owners of Paws in Heaven decided to retire, and the McGoldricks bought the business. Tom McGoldrick recognized that the business savvy, technical knowledge and relationship-building skills he had honed over the course of his career in IT would lend themselves well to running and growing their new business. Paws in Heaven perfectly combines McGoldrick's love for animals with his business and technical acumen.

Focusing on your interests and strengths the way McGoldrick did will help you more easily recognize opportunities as they come along and determine whether they're a good fit for you.

4. Try your possibilities on for size: What would this new career really be like?

Technical graphic designer Marissa Rosenfield Smajlaj was shopping at a bookstore in downtown Boston when she came upon a copy of the book Colette's Birthday Cakes by world-renowned specialty cake artist Collette Peters. As she flipped through the pages and admired each cake, she had an epiphany: "I could do this!" she thought. Smajlaj got a part-time job in a bakery to see if she'd enjoy the work. She loved it, decided to go to culinary school and was accepted at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in London. She completed the Le Cordon Bleu Diplome de Patisserie. The following year, she became a pastry chef at a New York City restaurant. She hasn't looked back since.

5. Be open to opportunities: What's out there?

Bill Sobbing didn't start out as an IT professional. In college, he majored in English. When he graduated, he didn't know what he wanted to do with his life. He looked at many different possibilities, but none of them excited him. Eventually, a relative got him a job where the relative was working. When the IT department at Sobbing's company posted an entry-level position, he applied for it and was accepted. Sobbing found a career that interested him and spent the next 20 years working in various IT roles. He enjoyed the work but, like many IT managers, he tired of corporate politics. He decided to become an independent consultant and began working primarily from his home. One morning, he picked up a newspaper and read about a local school, The San Diego Golf Academy, which offers a program in golf course management. He had played golf casually since high school but never considered making it his career. Yet something in the story about the Golf Academy compelled him to check it out. Three years later, Sobbing is general manager of a nine-hole golf course in Phoenix, Ariz. He could never have done it if he hadn't indulged his curiosity.

6. Select the right opportunities: Which are viable?

In 2002, Alan Klug was a senior consultant with KPMG. He enjoyed working with clients, but the consulting industry was suffering from the post-9/11 economic recession at that time. Klug knew future consulting opportunities would be limited and decided to pursue something entrepreneurial. He considered opening a custom closets business, a car wash, and franchising a quick-service restaurant. He developed business plans for each idea, but none of them really grabbed him. Then he came across a small ad in Fortune for 1-800-GOT-JUNK? Intrigued by a company that got paid for taking people's junk off their hands, he says he "researched the heck out of it." He learned that it was a lucrative and fast-growing business with a solid strategy and good management team heading it up.In 2003, he became a 1-800-GOT-JUNK? franchisee with four territories. He has since expanded to eight territories. He is on track to become a $2 million business in 2008 and is already thinking about what he might do next. "If an opportunity comes along, don't count it out immediately because it seems too good to be true. Just research it and find all the downsides," he says. "There are plenty of opportunities out there to be exploited."

If you have a couple of options and can't decide between them, take out a sheet of paper and divide it into columns—one for each possibility in question. Write the title of each option at the top of each column. List the pros and cons of each possibility side by side. If neither choice stands out, answer the following questions: What will happen if I pursue this career? What won't happen if I pursue this career? What will happen if I don't pursue this career? What won't happen if I don't pursue this career? Those four questions sound similar, but they're all slightly different and designed to help you explore the nuances of each possibility. Use your answers to those questions to decide which option is the best for you.

7. Create a career action plan.

Once you have decided on a career, you can put together a career action plan. This is a simple project plan with tasks, deliverables and target dates. It includes a long-term career objective (from six months to three years) with short-term tasks and deliverables for the next three months.

If your career objective is, for example, to launch your own consulting business next year, one short-term task to perform might be to talk with several consultants to learn more about what it's like. Other tasks might include investigating what areas of specialization are in greatest demand and what it would take for you to build your expertise in those areas. A deliverable might be to draft a preliminary business plan with a list of potential clients and the financial resources you have available to launch your business. At the end of three months, add new tasks and deliverables for the following three months. This simple approach works well for planning and tracking your progress.

As you begin building your career action plan, answer the following questions:

  • What do I need to accomplish my goal?
  • Do I need education, equipment, office or other space?
  • Do I need hands-on experience?
  • Do I need financial aid?
  • Do I need a mentor or a coach?
  • Who among my friends and acquaintances can provide assistance with my career change? What assistance can they provide: resources, expertise, moral support?

Remember, no one succeeds alone. There's nothing wrong with asking for help. There is something wrong with not asking for help when you need it. In most cases, people are more than willing to lend a hand.

These seven tips come from my own experience as well as the experiences of others. I leveraged my own interests and strengths in training and professional development to move from IT into my coaching business. In my corporate role as director of career development, I coached many IT professionals, from systems developers to executives. In that role, I had the opportunity to try out what would become my new career as a professional coach. Since I wasn't ready to leave my corporate job at the time, I worked with a mentor/coach to develop and implement a business plan that enabled me to remain with my company while I earned my credentials and began to build my coaching and consulting practice. I have been on my own since 2006. I have found great joy and success in my new career, and I wish you the same in your "Life Beyond IT," wherever it may take you.

Joanne Dustin is a certified professional coach and the author of Life Beyond IT: Open the Door...Your Future is Waiting.

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