My Second Career

We 30-somethings have spent our lives being prepared for a working life that looks very different than our parents’ and grandparents’. I remember when I graduated from High School hearing that a person my age could expect to have seven careers over their lifetime. Of course, at the time, I had no clue what one career I might pick. In retrospect, I had a blithe confidence that whatever career I ended up doing would be awesome and I would be awesome. Perhaps I would be a wealthy scholar, of um, something. Ah, the hubris of youth!

I went off to a fine fine liberal arts college and got my incredibly useful double major in English and Medieval Studies. You’re almost holding your breath waiting for the cold reality-bath that I seemed destined for at that moment, aren’t you?

But…. my esoteric studies in Wind Instrumental Ensembles in Italy from 1450 to 1620 had inadvertently inspired me to get some useful skills. (NOTE: That’s actual heritage 1999 HTML going on there folks! AHAHAHH! I’d forgotten the Web Rings! Those were all the rage….) I’d built on this experience to have, by the time I graduated, roughly 3 years experience doing websites. This was in the year 2000 (pre-bust), when very few people had more than three years, and anyone with a pulse could get a programming job. That’s exactly what I did.

I tell this story nearly every time I have to explain to someone how an English/Medieval Studies double major ended up programming.

The entire first decade of the 2000s I spent on variations on that theme. I learned a medium-niche programming language called ColdFusion. I got pretty good at MS SQL Server development (coding queries, etc.). I can do an inner join with the best of ’em.

Across three separate jobs, I kept trying to move from programming (which I was unexpectedly pretty good at at) to a job that required talking and writing. If you were to draw up a list of the things I’m best at, talking and writing are probably right up there. I once won $1000 in a contest doing impromptu speaking on the Constitution. I am unafraid of presentations. I like meeting people. I like talking. I’m a rampant, unrepentant extrovert. And I spent ten years programming?

So in February I got this new programming gig in a totally different language (which I didn’t know) in a much larger company (going from a 16 person company to a 6,000 person global company). There was talk of the “succession planning team” (which I think must be mythical since I’ve never heard of it since). I thought that maybe this was finally time for me to break out of the code-mines. I’d become… I dunno… a project manager! Or maybe manage a small team of coders?

Since then, it’s been a whirlwind. I did to a tiny tiny bit of programming in that new language — exactly one function. Then I suddenly got assigned two large, really large, projects to manage. And we got acquired. And I got moved around. And suddenly everything I thought I was working towards I got. Bing! Your first genie wish arrived!

Holy cow.

This is it. I’m into my second career. There are no IDEs in my new career. I do not write code. I am expected to know a bit about all the acronyms and be in depth about none. My key skills are multitasking, interpersonal relationships, paperwork, fantastic note-taking, question-asking and presentation-giving. It’s a moving, spinning target with words that I thought were generic buzzwords suddenly taking on terrifyingly specific meanings. I am the one who tells people how we take an idea and make it happen. I have to update the budget. I talk a lot about making sure we’re in alignment.

I am learning so very much. I flip between terrified and excited. I don’t even know how to talk about what I’m doing. Do I sound bombastic and self-centered when I talk about the people, the politics, the circumstances of my job? This new career is of the kind that can suck you in and demand your entire personal life if you let it…. how do I not let it? I have a gazillion and one friends who are programmers. I could bounce things off them and my husband if I felt out of my depth. I have, well, pretty much no friends who are doing what I’m doing now. Who do I bounce things off? Or do I tie them up tightly and keep them inside? This new career is Corporate with a capital “C”. Nylons and ties Corporate. I have a Blackberry. Everyone seems to have a BMW, unless they have an Audi. How does that relate to my personality and identity… to who I really am?

When I was in high school, I did Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA), mostly because you got out of class and went places where you could meet cute boys. I did extremely well at typing (my typing speed is still one of my secret assets). But I could never even imagine myself in the buzzword world of the Keynote Speakers, the swank unreality of plush hotel lobbies with fountains and glass elevators and stultifying conference rooms. Now I find myself wondering if I should find out if there’s a local chapter and volunteer with them.

All this has really shaken me. It’s hard to talk about, because it’s a very good change. Any sort of “working through” this sounds like bragging in my head, so I don’t do it. And I really can’t blog about the specifics because, uh, that’s career suicide and stupid to boot. But work is taking a tremendous amount of my intellectual energy. I come home really tired. I hardly ever have “extra” time at work that I can spend doing things like blogging. You might have noticed by my frantic “Please, at least one update a week!” pace here. I’ve held the line on hours worked, but somehow it seems like my days are even more compressed.

And I still don’t know if I will succeed at this, if I want to succeed at this… what success looks like and whether I’m willing to accept the consequences of success.

Thus my transition from Career 1 (programmer) to Career 2 (Business Analyst).

Have you made career transitions? What career number are you on? Have you found them hard or easy to make? What was your favorite and least favorite career? What did you do when you found yourself succeeding faster than you can adjust your self-image? What’s the biggest career-related adjustment you’ve ever made, and how did you do it?

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Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.

9 thoughts on “My Second Career”

    1. Honestly, sometimes I get grumpy at him for not being here for this. He WOULD have been the person who would’ve understood and been able to talk to me about it. And he would have been proud of me. I miss him.


  1. I might use this post when I talk to students about what sort of job(s) can be had with an English major. And it made me laugh to think of you navigating the corporate labyrinth you describe. It’s a long way from Mineral, eh?


    1. As a matter of fact, it is. Mineral seems far more authentic though. I’m often glad for my roots there, although it didn’t seem like I was very rooted at the time.

      The halls of programmers are populated with English majors. It depends on the exact kind of company, but there are lots of us.


  2. Gosh, there’s a lot here. Where to start?

    I’ve had two favorite jobs in my career as an engineer to date. Both of them have required me to wear the dual hat of programmer and business analyst. I love it. So while you may well be a level or two beyond me in business analysis at this point with the full-time trial by fire you’ve been dealing with over the past year, I’m more than happy to chat with you about either programming or business analysis challenges you’re working on. (And I can’t promise I won’t ask for help on an inner join or two sometime in the future!)

    Now if I may, I’d like to put on my analyst hat for a second and, oh heck, even throw a little psychology in there since that was my major before I got sucked into the dotcom boom. First of all, congratulations! I have friends who would kill to be in the position you’re in now. It requires a lot of hard work, perseverance, usually a leap of faith or two, and a splash of serendipity to have this avenue open up for you. But I have to add a word of caution: one thing we plebes don’t hear and/or think about when we look on with envy at the high-powered corporate executive driving around in their BMW is how many hours they have to put in at the office to be where they are, or how many days of the year they have to fly to other cities to go fight fires or close deals. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with the jetset lifestyle, but I’m sensing both some awareness and some hesitation from you (mingled in with plenty of positive excitement!) as you realize you’re on the cusp of getting swept up into that whirlwind. The rewards are great, but, yes, the price of admission is high. All I ask is that you do a gut check with yourself and your family and make sure this is a good and exciting direction to go before you get sucked in for two or twenty years only to realize the price was too high. I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong answer here, only tradeoffs. What an awesome and terrifying decision to be in the position to make!

    Of course, this is only the beginning, not the end. As long as you continue to take stock as things progress and make sure you’re headed on the road you want to be on, everything will be fine. As I remind Laura, there’s always taking our savings, buying some cheap real estate in Oklahoma, and setting up beet farming.

    Oh, the counter on your Wind Instrumental Ensembles page is broken. I think there may be a dead link or two as well.


    1. Justin, I think a LOT of my unease and insecurity is that I know and am explicit that I won’t live that way. I will hold the line on having a family and personal life, and I’m completely aware that at some point that will mean I can’t go any further. I’m comfortable with that decision, but I’m not really sure how it plays out in real life. Every day I think “I should work late, there’s so much to do!” And every day I shut down my computer and come home instead. Rinse and repeat. I do not want and will not accept that lifestyle. But I don’t know how high you can get on the chain I’m on without it. Guess I’ll find out!

      Really? You mean html pages you haven’t updated in a decade might have broken links? No way!


  3. From one typist to another, words of wisdom: “Never admit you can type.”
    It’s interesting how we liberal arts types end up where we are going, which is often far from where we started. I suppose I am on my second career, though my first was just an extension of a college job I had. Then I started working my way up at a company to get to where I am now, but I consider that one career. Sometimes I don’t even like saying what I do (video editor) because I feel that alone is bragging, which I guess just shows how much I like what I am doing. (BTW, it’s not programming but it’s a pretty tech-y career for a liberal arts major.) However, I am a freelancer, which suits me because I get bored easily, and I can easily see shaking it up every now and again and winding up with seven different careers before I am done.


  4. Fascinating stuff. It all sounds either thrilling or terrifying, depending on what you want out of it.

    The mundane for me: I was a teacher, I’m a librarian now. The transition from one to the other was smooth, and I felt like I was finally doing something I loved. The workload was less, the pay was less, but my happiness shot up. And I learned something.

    The less mundane: I blogged for years, and was surprisingly high-profile. People still know who I am in my state thanks to my work there. Hell, I was on TV a bunch of times as a pundit. But in the thick of everything last year I decided that something had to do, and I flushed my blogging life down the toilet. I lost a foothold in the world you’re describing, this world of high-stakes players, fancy conference rooms, power and money. But I felt immensely better about who I was and where I was going. I learned that I want no part of that world (I had a chance to go to an Obama event or go ride trains in Boston one weekend. Guess which I picked), and I walked away.

    And now my library career is probably stuck for a long time, my once a week posts about politics at another site are getting a tiny amount of play (but nothing like what it was) and I’m surprisingly happy about where I am.


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