I couldn't believe my luck.
Six months after leaving Microsoft, I was starting work in the global health sector as a project manager. I'd depend on my years of experience and skills to buoy me in a completely new intellectual space - malaria elimination. The science was exhilarating, and every day I came home marveling at my brain's ability to grasp half of what was said. I gleefully sat in a room watching scientists talking about protein sequences, and I thought about the years I spent listening to programmers talk code. Different languages, same conversation, and I was bearing witness to it all.
But aside from the intellectual stimulation, I was really struggling to adjust and I still am. Some of my challenges are systemic, some interpersonal, some cultural. Much of what I am about to say has everything to do with where I came from (IT), how I got there (self-taught, not school-learned), and who I became as a result of those experiences.
It's hard to see this from the outside...
I understood how projects were funded from well before my start date. What I didn't anticipate were the implications. For someone from private sector, funding means budget, and we all know when there's no budget to do something. We might know less about how the money comes in, but we understand that money is usually budgeted by department and the department allocates it by project to teams to complete work.
But in the non-profit space, funding comes from grants, which are the result of a proposal submitted by one or more teams within an organization. I've been sitting shotgun in the proposal process and I've learned that before a proposal is ever sent in, pretty much all of the budgeting, timelines, resources, and plans must be laid out in advance - at least to some degree. In private sector, we'd pitch an idea, and the money would be used to flesh it out. In public sector, there's less room for improvisation, depending on the organization's relationship with the donor and the donor's hands-on attitude. In my experience, there's never enough time to do planning, and if planning is driven by a proposal submission schedule, you can bet there's not enough due diligence in that process either.
Another funding-slash-resourcing implication is that team members are expected to stay for the length of the grant, with the length of the grant as just about anything - from 3 months to 10 years, for example. In private sector - and in Washington State in particular - employment is at will, meaning you can come and go at any time. Generally, as a software program manager, I changed projects and teams yearly, gaining new skills and salary increases along the way. That's not the expectation in a grant-funded project. Pace and timing are very different, and what I do a year from now may not be the same thing I'm doing today, even if I am in the same project. Folks who have long been here see this as normal, but some coming from tech may see it as career-limiting. Change is essential in tech, and demonstrates your mobility and drive. To sate that drive in my current position, I'm challenged to take on new skills, new projects, and new experiences within the boundaries of this grant.
I didn't cut my teeth in a masters, PhD or postdoc program. I never had to endure the caprices of a spiteful adviser or work in an environment where people are tenured for life. I've been a productive member of a meritocracy as long as the internet's been around, and I don't suffer fools at all.
When you're changing careers, the rules change. I put my attitude on the shelf, took out my humility cape, and started over. I wanted to sit quietly and absorb everything I could from all of these smart people all around me. That didn't last long. My first week, I tried to shush the little voice in the back of my head saying, 'this ain't right, yo. Do something.' I might not have known the first thing about my new job, but I knew bad behavior when I saw it. Problem was, there was a culture of fear. People told me, 'well, it's not as bad as when I was in school,' as if they'd been dealt a better hand somehow. My colleagues had grown up in environments where rocking the boat got you nowhere. I did not, and I had a very hard time sitting still.
I know that the problems I was witnessing were isolated and that this is not the culture in the rest of the organization I joined. In fact I stayed, despite how hard it got for a while, and I don't regret that decision at all. Now that I've seen conflict and resolution all they way through, I feel more invested. I'm also encouraging people to speak up. Often.
And I'm finally on the inside
To be honest, I wasn't sure I would make it six months. But with a lot of support, I did - and now I finally feel I've my legs under me. I want to encourage other folks hoping to transition from tech into public health, global health, or global development - it can be done.
Are you moving into public health from tech? Are you trying to hire a tech worker into global health? Read my recommendations.
Drop me a line anytime if you want some help, or look me up on LinkedIn.