It's been almost a year since my tenure at Microsoft ended, and nearly six months since I started working actively in the global health sector. I've started to hear from people who are considering making this same shift, so I wanted to share some of the important lessons I've learned and also make some recommendations to hiring managers in global and public health who might be interested in snapping up highly skilled IT workers.
Who Am I?
I am what is generally regarded as a mid-career professional. I have 20+ years in the software industry, doing everything from technical support to training to event management and program management. To folks not in software, program management is often a catch-all role, a jack-of-all-trades. It means that for many years I was brought in to clean up projects, teams, schedules, expectations. Anything that needed straightening out, I could do. In fact, I saw it as an accomplishment when I could work myself out of a position - it meant the reasons I had been brought in weren't a factor any longer and the business could move again on its own.
A layoff from Microsoft meant I had a valuable opportunity to shift. I could afford to spend my days studying, networking, and volunteering until I found my next job. I had been focusing on nonprofit work for several years, and after a few rounds with a career counselor, I decided to focus on public health as my next venture. I didn't expect for life to be the same as it had been at Microsoft - I understood I'd need to make some critical financial and professional adjustments - but I'd hoped that my skills could be put to good use by a fast-growing sector in my state.
I am a problem-solver at heart, so I turned my transition into a project. I started by writing some clear goals, and because I was my own best PM, I reported status to myself via a journal, tracking hours on development activities, people I'd met and under what circumstances, opportunities I sensed, and what sorts of jobs were appearing on my radar. Everything I undertook I did for a purpose - to support those very specific goals I'd written.
These are the activities I did during that six-month window:
- Established first- and second-tier goals
Before I did anything, I bought a couple of journals and wrote some goals. First-tier goals were those big-picture goals, things I'd hoped to do in 3 - 5 years. An example of this is to start my own consulting firm offering a very specific service to global and public health organizations. Second-tier goals were those nearer-term accomplishments that would drive those first-tier goals. Getting a job in the sector, understanding the funding models, and proving my concept were second-tier goals.
- Asked for specific help from friends
In addition to writing goals, I wrote a very specific request to friends that I could share via social avenues and email. It's very hard for people to respond to 'I need some help finding work,' but it's much easier for people to know the answer to 'Do you know anyone with a science or health background who is working on a project where they don't have enough funds and they need volunteer help?' I got lots of leads from this.
When I started looking at Public Health, I realized the landscape was very diverse. Was I interested in local issues, like poverty, food security, social justice, health and safety, and emergency response, or more global issues, like disease eradication and development? Did I want to be a technical contributor - a scientist? What did I want to do, and for what purpose?
Volunteering was an excellent way to get exposure to different facets of public health. I tried to pick up activities that would let me explore those sub-sectors of public health: food bank work, fundraising for a national disease organization, emergency planning and response, managing electronic health records, and working in a clinical setting. I quickly learned what interested me, and shied away from jobs that didn't.
I knew I'd need some core knowledge in public health, so I jumped online and found free and nearly-free courses in epidemiology, health informatics, and food policy (coursera.org). I brushed up on my math through the Khan Academy because I knew statistics and analysis would come up anywhere I went. Assuming I might also pursue an MPH, I prepared for and took the GRE.
Every bullet above afforded me contact with folks in the field, so I took every chance I could to meet people in person and talk about their work. I drank a lot of coffee. But some of those meetings turned into very solid relationships that will eventually carry me through those first-tier goals.
After a solid six months, I landed my first job in global health as a project manager on an effort to eradicate malaria. I thought I had prepared excellently, but I had much more to learn.