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Lessons Learned

How To Master The Art Of The Accidental Career

Three "accidental techies" explain how they wound up in roles they hadn't planned for, and what it takes to succeed in them.

How To Master The Art Of The Accidental Career
[Photo: Flickr user Quentin Meulepas]

Even if there's no shortage of jobs in your field, there's rarely a clear path for getting them. That's especially true in the technology industry, but it applies to varying degrees across the board, too. As job markets fluctuate and roles evolve, many professionals find themselves working at the intersection of technology and some other field—whether that’s medicine, social services, retail, or entertainment—and on a career path that doesn't yet have a formal job title.

More and more, these quick-changing, accidental careers are becoming the norm. As technology continues to transform our lives, how do we still keep our hands on the wheel when it comes to our own careers? One answer, at least, is to start by recognizing that you may be inching toward or even immersed in a tech career without fully realizing it.

To understand what steps to take next, I spoke with three professionals who've successfully married technology and social impact to build careers they love—but could never have envisioned beforehand.

Let Life Change You

It isn't just the onrush of technological change that can throw your career path for a loop. Life events—big or small, noticeable to others or not—often invite reflection. Don't resist that. Anytime big changes reshape your life, pause to reconsider how your goals and aspirations may change with them.

"I am a four-year brain tumor survivor," says Tak Fuji, a senior IT executive who's currently serving as vice president of information technology for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Fuji credits this major life event with shifting the direction of his career path after 25 years of experience across a wide range of industries, from commercial banking, software, and consulting to real estate development and higher education.

"This event caused me to re-evaluate my career ambitions and life goals," he tells me. "I never thought I would be working for a nonprofit; however, it has been the most rewarding, supportive, and positive working environment I have ever experienced."

Nor do major life events always need to come with a sudden crisis or massive change. For many, they may not even be perceived by our peers. Smita Vadakekalam, VP of professional services at Heller Consulting, says:

A big moment for me was when I was working for a nonprofit and I saw a couple of consultants white-boarding some process workflows. At the time, I didn’t understand what they were actually doing, but what they were doing was really appealing, and I wanted to learn more.

Identifying an interest she wasn't aware of before led Vadakekalam to expand her knowledge and shift her career path toward operations and strategy.

To chart (or rechart) your career path, pay attention to moments of curiosity or tension. Ask yourself: "What aspect of my career do I feel I need to change? Why? Where am I now? Where do I want to be? What is prompting this feeling? How can I better explore the underlying roots of this moment?"

Never Stop Learning

What helps us make decisions about whether we should apply for that new job, explore a totally new field, or venture out into the unknown professional world? Often it's the desire—the need, really—to continue learning throughout the entire length of a career. Faced with every new opportunity, those who fall into successful, accidental career paths always ask themselves: "What will I learn if I try this?"

Recent Pew research finds that 73% of Americans consider themselves lifelong learners, and 74% of are "personal learners," engaging in at least one activity in the last year to increase their knowledge about a topic of personal interest. This may sound pretty intuitive: Many of us are already driven by a desire to keep learning, whether or not we all follow that drive toward new and unexpected careers.

Jackie Mahendra, founding director of the OPEN-US Network and partner at Citizen Engagement Laboratory, who jumpstarted her career while helping to build a tech lab in Senegal after college, says she evaluates new opportunities based on whether or not the things she wants to learn could become a part of that new role:

Leaning into curiosity and having concrete learning goals has been a powerful driver in my career. Doing something truly challenging is much easier when you remind yourself that this is the thing you most wish to learn. The only failure, then, is not learning from the challenge.

Or, as Vadakekalam sums it up, "Always be committed to learning."

Are you looking at a new opportunity? Follow Mahendra's example and ask yourself not just whether you'll learn something new, but whether those are things you actually want to learn. Before you even start job hunting, pin that down first. And never be surprised when you learn something you didn't plan to at all.

The better you can define what goals, topics, or experiences you'd like each new opportunity to teach you, the better equipped you'll be to make decisions about the next opportunity that comes along unanticipated.

Find Creative Ways To Add Value

Asking yourself what you may contribute in a new role is standard job-hunting advice. But that can be less apparent when you're switching into a new field where you may not be quite as certain exactly what you'll be able to offer in your new role there. It's a challenge, too, to know what you can bring to the table while still being open to change.

At the start of her career, Vadakekalam says she wasn’t sure what value she could really add, and that meant finding something that interested her and diving in until she had enough perspective to understand her strengths. After that, she was able to let it guide her.

"The part that I’ve stumbled upon that has led me to exciting opportunities," she told me, "is asking this question at each venture: 'What value can I add to the sector?'" Answering that took time—and some creative thinking.

For Mahendra, adding value was much more straightforward and a bit less glamorous: "I became an 'accidental techie' because I was willing to jump in and do work that no one else was willing or able to do," she says. "My first official job title was 'e-advocacy, web, tech, and database manager,' which meant I was essentially a master of googling things and troubleshooting."

Recognizing that the opportunity is for both the employer and employee is important. Is this the space where you can dive in and really commit yourself? What skills and attributes will help you make the transition and thrive in your new role? Getting answers to these questions demands trying new things and, in the process, uncovering your strengths in unfamiliar situations.

The tech industry is brimming with "accidental techies" like Mahendra, people who fell into technology unplanned in order to take advantage of new opportunities. Mahendra's advice for anyone on an accidental career path is this: "Figure out where your unique value meets your passion. Layer on top of that an understanding about what you most wish to learn—then run toward it."

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