Squiggly careers: grow your own way

Opencast led a practical session recently on the skills people need to join the tech workforce – with four consultants sharing their 'squiggly' career routes. They were joined by Sarah Ellis of Amazing If. Dynamo's Jill McKinney moderated.

What are squiggly careers?

Sarah Ellis: “What are squiggly careers – and why do they matter? For so long everybody referred to ‘ladders and staircases’. When we thought of what a successful career should look like, we thought of following in other people's footsteps – progression had to equal promotion, and the sense that we should all want the same thing in the same way at the same time.

“Now we know, from working with people across the world, that hardly anyone describes their career as linear or predictable. Instead, we’re faced with the challenges of uncertainty, complexity and change. We want careers as individual and as brilliant as you are. We want you to feel like you're drawing your own squiggle in a way that works for you.

“We now spend very little time convincing people that careers are squiggly – we spend most of it helping people with the skills to succeed in those squiggly careers. We want to help you make the most of those opportunities, while also overcoming the inevitable obstacles and knotty moments that we all experience in our careers. There is no such thing as a straight line to success any more.”

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Squiggly careers expert Sarah Ellis

A ‘gentle squiggle’

Emily Allinson (head of user-centred design): “I took a very clear path and a simple route to being a head of department. But my background was a ‘gentle squiggle’ – at no point did I make a decision to move into design or research.

“I did a degree in Japanese, moved to the Netherlands and did a lot of odd jobs with languages, and bit of teaching and copy editing. When I moved back to the UK about 10 years ago, I ended up working at a tech firm. I didn't know what the possibilities were – nobody talked to me at school about content design, user research, UX or any of that stuff. It just wasn't part of the lexicon. So it was a real gradual move into the field, bit by bit. It was a bit of a slow squiggle.

“User-centred design is still an emerging field. When I was starting out we would talk a lot about UX and UX design as a field, whereas now the way we talk about the roles it's a lot more varied – we talk about content, design and users. There's a bit of a mystique around tech as an industry, and certainly around UCD and UX that keeps people away from it. There are different roles and different skillsets, with different ways that you can approach them.”

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Opencast UCD head Emily Allinson

Software ‘lit a fire’

Sinéad Cummings (senior software development consultant): “I was a research scientist, and that came from being good at biology at school. I followed that through and worked in biotech, but was not particularly stimulated by it, and then was involved in a project that required me to think about automation programming. It really lit a fire for me. I realised this is what I should have been doing the whole time. So I went back to uni to become a software developer.

“Then my husband and I decided to become parents. That in itself was really challenging because I'd already switched once and felt incredibly behind everybody else. I was trying to catch up with all my peers, then I was going to take six to 12 months off and put myself even further behind. But we decided it was the right time, so I became a mum for adoption a couple of years ago. It was an amazing experience and continues to be every day.

“But it is a big thing. It's a demanding job. I'm on calls a lot of the time, and I'm having to pair with people a lot, which involves being on calls and meetings a lot of the time. Then there's the requirement for doing the nursery pickup at the end of the day, and being present for my kid when I'm there in the mornings and at night. That's been a juggle. At Opencast we have we have a parental support group and one for period and menopause support as well.”

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Opencast software developer Sinéad Cummings

What people want matters

Hazel Dixon (senior user research consultant):“I went to university, but I struggled with my mental health in my first year, so I stepped away. I ended up working as a children's entertainer, doing children's parties, balloon modelling. I really enjoyed it. I also taught English as a foreign language and got really in that. A few years down the line I decided to go back to education. While I was studying, I got into gamification of education and ended up doing a postgrad course in technology and enhanced learning.

“After that I did some work in escape room design. It was great fun. But then as a freelancer, I felt the old struggles of my mental health start to come back.

“Later on I saw this advert for a job as a user researcher. I thought I’d go for that. It was wonderful and I loved it. I love research - there's something about finding out what people want, and making things better for them. I'm visually impaired, so I can't see very well, and websites are often a struggle. So, being part of that research and design process, asking people and making sure you implement the changes that are needed has been really important to me.”

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Opencast senior user researcher Hazel Dixon

Take time to reflect on career goals

Judith Esrome Rozario (senior agile delivery consultant): “I started my career as a college lecturer, but after eight months I realised teaching wasn't my calling, so I decided to explore other options. I joined a call centre, hoping to gain some experience in the corporate world, but that didn't last for long. I decided to learn something to enhance my skills, so I do a computer application programme course.

“While I was studying, I joined the corporate world, starting on an IT service desk. Then I picked up service management roles, then a role as scrum master. I was very much interested in the technical side, and I was passionate to learn about it. I was about six months pregnant, and my managers were very supportive.

“I was working in the retail sector, where December is the peak period, so I was under a bit of pressure to learn things quickly. I had my baby and maternity leave, and came back after six months. My family, my husband and my managers were really supportive in helping me overcome my fears.

“When you switch from one career to a different one, you have to take time to reflect on what your career goal is going to be, what your aspiration is and what value it's going to bring to you and the organisation. I have been in multiple roles. I reflect on what I want to become in the longer term, then what my aspiration is, and I try to understand what the areas where I can improve.”

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Agile delivery consultant Judith Esrome Rozario

One piece of advice

Jill McKinney: “What’s your one piece of advice for anyone looking for a career switch?”

SC: “If it feels like it's something that you're passionate about and you've got the means to do it absolutely give it a go.”

EA: “If you're interested in switching, it's really important to to find people who do that job and find out what the day-to-day is like.”

HD: Trust your body. If it doesn't feel right, do something different.”

JER: “Perseverance and a growth mindset are essential when navigating a carrier in tech.”

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Moderator: Dynamo's Jill McKinney

Squiggle and Stay

Sarah Ellis: “Squiggle and Stay is a global experiment programme that Opencast is a part of. We asked 16 organisations who are committed to creating a squiggly career culture, where people can transfer their talents, to sign up to a few things.

“Firstly, to running at least three experiments over 12 months; secondly, being open with those experiments, because inevitably some experiments work and some experiments fail; and thirdly, to borrow brilliance from each other.

“We’ve got so many different sectors and types of company represented as part of the programme. Everybody from the BBC to Pfizer to charities like the Red Cross and Macmillan, London Business School, the NHS and Danon. They’re all global and they’re all different.

“Everybody brings their own dynamics to the programme. But the essential thing is that we are learning by doing. We are learning what works and what doesn't, and also hearing from employees about what they want. How can we build better experiments? What ideas have they got? We’re creating an ideas bank – and we are learning as we go.

“I have been incredibly impressed by everybody's reaction. People are so open to squiggly careers, to transferring their talents and to trying out different ways to make that happen. Curious career conversations are a great way to figure out if you want to squiggle and stay. Lots of organisations are experimenting with these conversations and sharing squiggly career stories.

“One of my favourite ideas is career safaris, where you get holiday but you use it to spend time holidaying in user design ,or going to work as a scrum master for a week or two. By dipping a toe in the water you can learn a lot. If you've realised that a life in marketing or procurement is not for you, that's OK too, because worst-case scenario you've created some really good connections.

“We're challenging systems and structures, which is always hard. But people want to squiggle to success. The thing that I have seen really consistently – and that gives me a lot of hope - is individually, people have a great ‘don't wait’ mindset when it comes to careers. Experimenting is a big theme in squiggly careers, whether company-wide or you seeing your career as a series of experiments.

“I'm so proud of the progress that everybody has made so far. I feel very humbled by it.”

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Squiggle and stay: Sarah Ellis

Why more squiggling opportunities now?

SE: “At first we found a real divide. When we talked to individuals about this move away from ladder-like career paths they got it, but organisations didn’t. There was a real gap between organisations’ systems and structures and individuals. There were a lot of layers and levels, and that process of moving to more agile, flatter organisations, more cross-functional working, was just starting.

“Gradually, more organisations have started to see the value they gain from people transferring their talents. There’s now much more parity: organisations and individuals all accept that squiggly careers are everybody's reality. Individuals got there a lot quicker than organisations, but overall we now spend very little time convincing people about squiggly careers.”

JER: “I also see changes in workforce dynamics. People are seeking meaningful and fulfilling work that aligns with their interests and areas. This shifting mindset has created a more open and accepting environment. Technology advancements such as AI, cybersecurity or blockchain have opened up new avenues for professionals to transition into new roles. Digital transformation has provided more opportunities for career switches.”

This is an edited version of a ‘grow your own way’ discussion, which took place at Opencast HQ as part of TechNExt 2023 on 20 June. Watch the full session video.

All photos by Thomas Jackson at Tynesight Photography

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Questions from the floor

If it feels like it's something that you're passionate about and you've got the means to do it absolutely give it a go!

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