by J. Marc Hopkins

10 Tried-and-True Tips for Switching Industries

Oct 16, 2009
CareersIT JobsRelationship Building

Many IT professionals on the hunt for a new job are considering moving to a different industry. Veteran IT leader Marc Hopkins, who has worked in a variety of industries, shares his advice and lessons learned for making a seamless industry switch.

With the economic recession wreaking havoc on the financial services, automotive, retail and other industries, many IT professionals in those markets who’ve been laid off are considering an industry switch to open up their job searches.

Indeed, many career experts are urging job seekers to apply for jobs in the few industries that are growing or are poised for growth despite the recession, such as green energy and technology, education, and healthcare. They say diversifying one’s job search will increase their odds of landing a new job more quickly.

But switching industries can be an uphill battle for IT job seekers. Companies often don’t want to hire executives outside of their industries because it increases their risk. Hiring any executive is a high-risk and costly endeavor, so employers want to make sure that whomever they hire is right, can hit the ground running, and doesn’t need to come up to speed. Consequently, that often means that employers seek candidates with experience specific to their industry. (Of course, there are times when a company specifically seeks an industry outsider to bring in a fresh perspective.)

Despite the challenges associated with switching industries, doing so is not impossible. I have worked in multiple vertical markets, including broadcasting, retail, manufacturing and education. Recently, I moved from healthcare to educational publishing. I found this particular transition very challenging, but from this—and other—experiences, I learned several valuable lessons about moving from one industry to another. I hope my lessons will help you move into a new industry and make your transition a seamless one.

[ For more tips from J. Marc Hopkins, see his blog entry on switching industries. ]

1. Immerse Yourself

If you’re hunting for a job in a new vertical market, consider spending a week or two in the new environment. Consulting or unpaid internships are options to consider if you have the opportunity and the means. As an experienced IT leader, your expertise is extremely valuable to many organizations. Have you overseen an ERP conversion? That large-scale project management expertise sets you apart. For every vertical market, there is a company struggling with a problem you’ve already solved.

This is how I got into publishing, health care and education. I had experience that a company in those markets found beneficial, and a conversation with the head of each organization led to those opportunities.

Start by reaching out to your existing professional network. When I engineered my transition to higher education, I sought out colleagues who taught at colleges and universities, and I talked to them about their experiences and challenges. Through those conversations, I got the chance to guest-lecture for one of my professional colleagues as an IT industry expert. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and it led to further introductions to other professors, more discussions about higher ed’s needs, and gave me the opportunity to explain how my work in publishing applied to their needs.

If you can’t find connections in your professional network, social networking tools like LinkedIn and Twitter are great places to find professionals working in the vertical market you wish to enter. Using Twitter and LinkedIn, I connected with educators all over the country and learned what troubles were universal. With those insights, I developed a pitch that expressed how my experience could help them. Specifically, I explained how my experience with open source tools, web publishing and marketing was valuable to admissions professionals in higher education and how I helped colleagues build tools to measure and improve the effectiveness of their social media campaigns. They introduced me to their peers, and a new professional network was born. About two weeks into my social media campaign, I started to get recognized as an industry expert, even though I had never worked in the industry. I simply joined the conversation, contributed where I could, and respected those who were already there.

With the economy being what it is, your target market is likely experiencing a major shortage of training and development dollars. Figure out what you can offer folks in that target market and get out there. 2. Practice Nemawashi

Nemawashi is a Japanese term that literally translates to “going around the roots.” The concept of nemawashi is so engrained in the Japanese culture that it is difficult to translate into English, but it is most often translated as ‘laying the groundwork.’ As it was explained to me, nemawashi is an informal process of quietly laying the foundation for a change by talking to the people concerned, gathering their support and feedback before any formal steps are taken, and maintaining the harmony and credibility of those involved. It’s similar to our concept of getting buy-in, but the primary difference is that nemawashi is done quietly—almost covertly—before the idea for the desired future state is formed. This is a critical practice for gathering information about your new industry and identifying ways to help prospective employers in it.

I wish I had practiced nemawashi during the early stages of my current career transition. I was spending a lot of time with Jeremy, the branch manager at my local bank, to get my personal finances in order. The amount of paperwork he had to do to open an IRA account was staggering. I helped Jeremy a few times with some simple Windows shortcuts as he was trying to copy and paste information from one form to another. I did a little math in my head and realized that for this bank, the 20 minutes of work Jeremy was doing, multiplied by the number of IRA accounts they open (which Jeremy estimated for me) worked out to be a very large dollar figure. It was enough for Jeremy and I to retire on.

I shared my calculation with Steve, a colleague who was doing some programming work for Jeremy’s bank. I also shared my ideas on how to trim some costs from the process. Steve liked my ideas, but said it wasn’t quite practical for the bank for security reasons.

Had I practiced nemawashi with Jeremy and Steve, I could have learned about the security risk before suggesting the possible change, and perhaps I could have worked with Steve to refine and revise the idea so it more closely matched the needs of the bank.

Whether you have five or 50 years of experience under your belt, in a new industry, you are the rookie. Nemawashi can help you gain support in the rookie stages, win allies, and most importantly, influence an organization in the right direction. 3. Establish Your Credibility

I met Chris Brogan and Julien Smith during my days in publishing, when they were working on a book, Trust Agents, about using the web and social media to build influence, reputation and trust. One of the core premises of their book is that to have credibility in a social network, you must be “one of us.” For example, if a soft drink company is trying to sell a new cola to an online community of gamers, the company can’t just join the conversation with, “Hey guys, check this out.” Only if an existing, valued member of the group says, “Check this out,” will the recommendation have any merit.

Brogan and Smith’s notion of “one of us” applies to switching industries. I don’t know how many times I had ideas shot down because I didn’t have experience in the industry, simply because “that’s not how it’s done.” It didn’t matter that I was hired to improve things; I had no credibility with the audience and met resistance at every step. When I moved into education and health care, though, things were different. I was a trusted member of the group from the get-go because I had practiced nemawashi without even realizing it.

4. Don’t Assume Your Experience Transfers

Not all of your leadership experience is going to apply from one industry to another. Staff management is probably the area where this is most true. The industry you’re in will impact the types of people your company will attract and retain, and this will shape the culture of your department more than any other factor, even when the fields seem similar. For example, I found that certain management techniques, such as mentoring and motivating employees with challenging projects, worked well in an advertising agency, but were completely ineffective in publishing, where a much heavier management style was necessary.

Certain aspects of budgeting can also vary from industry to industry. One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen—and made myself—is miscategorizing information assets and liabilities on balance sheets and improperly valuing the assets stored on a company’s IT infrastructure. I learned quickly that in healthcare, an information asset has a fixed shelf life that’s normally mandated by a governing body. This made asset categorization very clear and easy. This was also the case in broadcasting. But it was not the case in publishing, as I once learned the hard way, after spending a pretty penny to store assets that had little value to the company. The morale of this story? Understand the business as well as you can before you categorize your company’s assets.

5. Don’t Assume Your Experience Doesn’t Transfer

Some disciplines are stable enough that the differences between vertical markets are barely discernible. Telephony, application delivery, helpdesk service, and project management easily transfer from one industry to another. A basic rule of thumb is that if an IT function is frequently outsourced, your experience in that area will be transferable.

6. Learn the Industry’s Concept of Customer

If you take only one thing from this list, make this it: Who is the customer for your organization or industry? In healthcare, our customer varied from conversation to conversation: It’s the patient, the insurance company, the government, the referring physician, the patient’s employer, and the patient’s family. We all understood that it was the patient who chose our practice, and all the other customers were also working for the patient.

The reason it’s so important to know the customer is because the customer truly is your boss. They can fire you (and your organization) simply by taking their business elsewhere. I’ve found that the most successful companies are the most customer-centric. What’s more, your understanding of the customer guides every decision you make. Knowing who your organization is ultimately accountable to—and demonstrating this from the earliest point possible—will ensure that your transition is successful. I recommending asking yourself, “Who is my customer,” every day.

I also recommend you ask prospective employers during your job interviews with them who their customer is. If their answer ever varies, take this as a huge warning sign. If the organization can not agree on the central concept of customer, it will have an identity crisis about who it serves and will always struggle to provide exceptional customer service to its ultimate customer base.

7. Identify and Win the Troublemakers

Once you’re in your new job in a new industry, you have a short amount of time to identify the influential troublemakers and make them your ally.

While I was consulting for a media company, the IT staff I was working with pulled me aside to tell me about one person in particular who was troublesome. They advised me to avoid that person at all costs. Instead, I sought her out immediately. I wanted to know why the IT staff felt the way they did, and if there was any merit to their feelings. I didn’t ask her those questions specifically, but I asked her what she felt the IT organization was doing right and wrong. We talked for two hours.

By having an open and honest conversation with her, I made a very powerful strategic ally, and in the process, I identified a number of solutions to some of the key issues the IT department was facing. We went on to make some great progress together, and those accomplishments were critical in helping me understand the industry, the company, and most importantly, to quickly identify where big progress could be made in a short amount of time.

That was several years ago, and this person’s name is still on my reference list.

8. Learn the Industry’s Revenue Streams

Who actually pays for your product or service? There is a delicate ecosystem of cash flow, and it can be disrupted at many different places. Do you clearly understand the industry’s revenue stream?

The biggest mistake of my career came in this area. Luckily, I was young when I made it, and I have tried to avoid it ever since. My first “real” job out of college was in radio broadcasting. I went to work for a large FM radio station. It was my job, I thought, to entertain the listeners and keep them tuned in to the station as long as possible. According to the ratings, I was pretty good at it.

One evening when I came in for my shift, I found the afternoon air personality sitting in a dark control room. There was a partial power failure in the area, and about one-third of the building was without power. The transmitter was on, but we weren’t able to put anything on the air or to control the transmitter.

Using extension cords, power strips and wirenuts, I managed to put us back on the air nearly five hours before the power was restored. I knew the station’s cash flow relied on our ability to play commercials to our audience, so I proceeded to reschedule every commercial that was missed during the previous hours. I thought my program director would be ecstatic; I had saved several thousand dollars of revenue.

As it turned out, I was only half right. I had gotten the station back on the air and reestablished our link to the audience, but the audience had turned to other stations when we fell silent a few hours before my shift began. Commercials that should have aired to a few hundred thousand people aired only to a few thousand. It took nearly a week for our ratings to return to their normal levels. In the end, I was credited with saving a large portion of the revenue and making the best out of a bad situation, but I only understood a small portion of the equation that made up our revenue stream. I never forgot that lesson.

How is your industry’s revenue stream supported? Is it directly by the customer, or is it like the health care system where the customer has multiple agents (many with different goals and objectives) serving them and their needs, and therefore funding your cash flow? A clear understanding of that cash flow process well help you identify where your IT team can best contribute.

9. Acceptable Risk Always Varies

You’ve probably had a directive from a CEO after a server malfunction that sounded like this: “We simply can not afford any more down time. Fix the problem!” So you proposed a clustered server, a disaster recovery site, or some other topology proven to increase reliability and uptime, and presented it to the CEO. That’s when sticker shock sets in.

The conversation immediately following sticker shock is where you and your CEO decide what is the acceptable risk-level for the organization. Basically, it’s the amount of risk the enterprise is willing to tolerate in exchange for the cost to mitigate that risk. And you can not assume that the level of risk an organization in one industry tolerates will be the same for an organization in another industry. Healthcare, for example, has a low risk tolerance for data loss: It can’t afford to lose historic patient data. But comparatively, publishing has a higher risk tolerance for data loss.

10. Keep an Open Mind

Just as individual organizations are at different stages in their IT systems maturity, some industries are categorically ahead or behind the curve. As technical folk, we find it difficult to imagine that magnetic tape is still used as a primary storage medium; however, many broadcasters are just now moving to hard disk and optical-based storage media from tape drives. Keep an open mind as you move from one industry to another.

J. Marc Hopkins is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based veteran of small business technology leadership in a variety of industries, including higher education, healthcare and media. He specializes in infrastructure design and consolidation, staff development, business intelligence, and business process improvement for non-profit and mission-focused businesses. He currently teaches at DeVry University and can be reached through his blog on, LinkedIn and Twitter.