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BUILD A CAREER

‍4 Tips for a Successful Career Switch

In this episode of the 50inTech podcast, Olga Petrova, a former engineer and now project manager at Scaleway, shares four must-read tips to help women in tech ace their next career switch.

 Tara Johnson
Tara Johnson

Social media and Event Manager at 50inTech

What you will learn:

  • Four must-read tips before switching to a new career
  • How to get informed about your new field of interest
  • How to step up your communications efforts
  • How to ignore unwanted negative feedback
  • How to bridge the apparent gap between your current expertise and your new field of interest

About the speaker:

Olga Petrova is originally from Russia, but she has lived all over the place. After spending 10 years in the United States for 10 years and obtaining her PhD in Physics, she spent a few months in South America before moving to Germany for three years, until finally settling in Paris about four years ago. 

After working as a full time quantum physicist for a few years, she has been with Scaleway for two and a half years now. Recently, she changed from being a machine learning engineer to a product manager.

Our favourite quotes: 

  • “After I have spent some time in a certain field, it starts to lose its novelty, and I just need to look for a new challenge in order to keep myself happy and focused on my work.”

  • “This is not my first career change, and definitely not my last”

  • “Talking about what you did before to different kinds of people and publishing content is extremely useful in terms of building your personal brand in the new industry.”

  • “Changing careers is an exhilarating life experience. I kind of compare it to switching countries.”

Why people consider changing careers

After getting my Ph.D. in theoretical physics, I worked as a full time quantum physicist for a few years. I have been with Scaleway for two and a half years now. I recently changed from being a machine learning engineer to a product manager.

This is not my first career change, and it definitely won’t be my last. Before joining Scaleway, I was working as a researcher in physics and then I switched to machine learning. After I have spent some time in a certain field, it starts to lose its novelty, and I just need to look for a new challenge in order to keep myself happy and focused on my work.

I think project management attracted me because so far I have been working on very technical things, first as a researcher and then as an engineer, whereas project management is completely interdisciplinary—it combines a technical aspect with some things that are very business oriented and also customer oriented. This is new to me and that's what attracted me to it. 

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4 Tips for a Successful Career Switch

For those looking to make a career change as well, I have four tips to share. 

  1. Read up on your new field

The advice that I often read is that you should try contacting people who are already working in the new field that interests you and talk to them about their experience. But I don’t think this is the best place to start, because everybody's experience is subjective. What they do or don't like about their job might be different from what you would like or not like. That’s why it is best to form some basis before we start talking to people.

This can be done through online courses or online degrees, which is what I did for both of my career changes. Actually, when I was switching from physics to machine learning, I took a deep learning specialization. It was a five course bundle on machine learning on Coursera. And then for my most recent change from engineering to product management, I spent the first lockdown in Paris last spring taking a product management degree on the Udacity platform.

Doing this brings two kinds of benefits. The first one is that it allows you to test out a new role, because many of these courses come with a real-world component to them, like a project that is meant to mimic a real work assignment. And secondly, if you decide you want to go for it, it gives you the knowledge that you will need to ace the interviews.

  1. Try to link your current expertise to the new field

My second piece of advice is find some way to link up your current domain to the new one. When I switched from physics to machine learning, I started a research project in physics that involved machine learning. And most recently, the project idea that I developed for my project management position actually has to do with machine learning.

Of course, if you're making a more drastic career change, you might need to be creative about this, but there are many possibilities. For instance, let's say you're working in retail and you want to switch to data science. It is possible that you can find some sales data in your current job.

It doesn't have to come directly from you.

Maybe you can just find it on the website of your company, and then you can use your data science knowledge to analyze that data in some way and try to come up with a conclusion that may be useful for the business, or just an interesting insight to share with the customers.

And even if you cannot find a way to put your former skills to use in your workplace, that's not a problem at all. You can simply write a blog post about it and share it publicly. 

  1. Step up your communication efforts

My third piece of advice is to polish your communication skills. Of course, communicating your ideas in a clear and concise manner is invaluable in any domain, but it’s especially important when you're changing fields. Talking about what you did before to different kinds of people and publishing content is extremely useful in terms of building your personal brand in the new industry.

So for me, this is something that started in a rather natural way back when I was working in physics, because part of a scientist’s job is to publish research results. When I made the switch to engineering, I thought that’d be over. We don't usually think of engineers as publishing papers.

However, I ended up writing some blog posts about the first projects that I carried out with Scaleway, and some of them did pretty well. For Scaleway it was a way to increase the visibility of our brand in the machine learning community, while for me it led to a lot of both writing and speaking opportunities at various meetups and conferences. 

Also, if you want to do the switch, and if you follow my second tip and try to link up the two domains, you will find that publishing content in one domain can help you with the other. For instance, when I was developing my idea for a product for machinery, the engineers who were used to reading my content came in very handy when I was gathering user research.  

If you’ve never published content before, I would say that a good place to start would be to go on Medium and look for publications in your domain of interest. This can be your old domain or the new one that you're trying to transfer to. And just try to pay attention to the kinds of things that you like and the kinds of things that you would like to avoid in your own writing.  

  1. Ignore the unwanted negative feedback

Above all, I would advise anyone thinking of a career change to ignore the usually unsolicited negative feedback that you can get. As humans, we are kind of used to being set in our ways. So for people outside your life, it might seem like you have everything going for you.

You already have a great career, so why change it? Why start someplace else?

However, I believe that, if you’re already thinking of making a career change, you definitely have good reasons to do so. So don't try to second guess yourself once you made the decision, and just ignore that negative feedback. Most likely you will also get some positive feedback, so just focus on that. But for the most part, just do your own thing.

In my experience, changing careers is an exhilarating life experience. I kind of compare it to switching countries.

Just keep in mind that you are not only bringing value into your own life, but also bringing value to the companies that you will be joining in the future, because both the viewpoints and the skills that you bring to the table will be different from your colleagues who might have more traditional resumes. This type of diversity is what transcends the workplace—diversity of life experiences, educational, social and professional backgrounds.

I would like to wish the best of luck to anyone thinking of a career change today!

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