In addition to sharing my story about my move into public health, I wanted to share some recommendations I'd make to folks considering the move, and for those looking to hire from IT. This is not an exhaustive list; each party will have needs that are specific to his/her/its circumstances. But it's a place to start a conversation.
Making the Move?
For those trying to move from IT to Public Health (or non-profit, global health, global development), consider the following:
- If you're mid-career like me, think long and hard about how much a drastic salary reduction might change your retirement plans. I'm not talking 10 - 15% less income, I'm talking 40% less income, fewer vacation days, less 401(k) matching, no profit sharing, no stock plans, and often no increases (merit, cost of living). Oh, and you pay more of your share for everything, like healthcare, prescriptions, your fitness club, and little stuff you might take for granted.
- Advancement doesn't happen at the same pace because the organization in general doesn't shift in the same way as in IT. If you're accustomed to more and more responsibility (and a bigger title and paycheck to match) because your group's been taught to do more with less, you might be surprised that the expectation holds true without the additional compensation. Nonprofits are supposed to be scrappy, after all.
- People have long and fulfilling careers in public health, sometimes working on a single issue for decades. When you move into the space, people may be shocked (and concerned) to learn how many different jobs you've had, how many companies you may have worked for, and how often you move around. That's because you're from tech, and that is a core competency of a tech worker - you move and adapt where the need is most pressing because if you don't, you get left behind. Because public health does not generally respond to market demands, moving around is rare. People choose their area of expertise - or move into it temporarily to help another team - and then stay until the grant is complete. This might be years. If you have a shark-like tendency, where you must move or die, you might struggle until you can find a spot that allows for growth within the boundaries of a program or grant.
- Shared services - like IT, design, HR - are scarce. Very few organizations can afford to fund groups like these without using grant money, so it means they're lean teams who may not have the resources to do the kind of work you might have seen at other for-profit companies. This might mean you wear a lot of hats - as a developer, you might have to make recommendations and negotiate financial agreements about infrastructure, you might have to act as designer. You could write training documentation, train the users, and then act as support. While your audience might be world-class scientists, they might not be advanced computer users, so translation and communication are key.
Trying to hire from Tech?
The Washington Global Health Alliance published a global health landscape study in 2015 that concluded that the second most difficult position to fill in global health was for software and web development. In Seattle, there's a giant population of software and web developers, but global health organizations were struggling to fill their positions. When I spoke with a hiring managers, I found they had some different expectations for their candidates than someone in tech might have for the same folks. Here's where we differed:
- Cater to the position you're trying to hire. The motivations of a mid-career professional and a recent grad are different, and the perks some employers were offering didn't suit my lifestyle. For example, frequent international travel was highlighted as an offset to higher salary. If I was half my age, I wouldn't mind spending 50% of my time in Mozambique working on software infrastructure problems. But that's not why I'm here.
- Recognize the independence. I want to contribute in the most effective way possible for me - to use the skills I have spent a lifetime acquiring to make an impact where I'm best suited. But there are a lot of processes in global health that don't allow much creative problem solving. If the person sitting across the interview table from you is like this, spend some time talking about their needs to define their own responsibilities.
- Be honest about growth opportunities. If you've read this far, you've already read what I said about changing positions often. If your organization isn't growing in a way that promotes from within, be clear about this. Tech folks often come from environments where they formally assess their career growth yearly, sometimes more often than that. Even if your organization isn't doing it formally, don't think the person across the table will completely give up that ritual. After 20 years of doing it, I regularly meet with myself to check in. Absurd, but true.
- Consider the technical needs. I've been a program manager for a long time. In this position, I navigate between stakeholders and developers, translating technical language to normal, everyday talk. I explain the whys, hows, and whens in a way non-technical people will understand and software developers will trust I'll get right. And I'm just one of a team of people needed to make a software project successful. If you have an open position for a software or web developer, do you have someone like me to support them? Do you have designers on staff who can create web-ready assets for those developers? Do you have a test team who can rigorously evaluate the developer's work so it doesn't fail the first time your VP tries it? Do you have an infrastructure team or an architect available to answer the developer's technical questions about your organization's capabilities? While most organizations are scrappy and can get by with less, a developer who can get by without any of that support is a rare find, and will come with an enormous cost as a consultant.
- Education is different for tech folk. Unlike public health, where nearly everyone has a PhD or two, a tech worker can be highly successful and sought-after even without any formal education. Dismissing people because they don't have the educational background of your program officers is a bad move. Find another way to understand their skills. Hire, even temporarily, a technical recruiter who knows where to look, and what to look for - or at the very least, have their potential peers perform technical interviews that are problem-solving in nature. Tech folks acquire skills through the myriad projects they do, not the education they had years before.