Most aspiring tech people make a critical mistake when evaluating ideas for a career. They approach the problem from a 30,000-foot view, saying to themselves, “I might like a career in finance.” Then, they try to work out a more detailed niche, before making plans for getting there. This can work sometimes, but if you find yourself getting stuck in this high-level thinking, perhaps a more practical approach is right for you.
Start at Ground Level
One of my most influential mentors taught me a simple lesson: it’s easier to learn at ground level than it is at 30,000 feet, both when picking an industry (e.g. Finance vs Mathematics), and when looking at the specifics of a career in a chosen industry (Network Engineering vs DevOps).
Instead of picking a high-level topic like “Information Technology” and then looking at the different careers available within that industry, start by getting some work experience. This can be through volunteer work, internships, asking to take on new projects at work, or learning and experimentation in your free time.
The important thing is that practical work experience will let you find a common thread in the things you like.
If you work at a startup and you enjoy the “all-in” mentality and the high-stakes atmosphere, this is good information that you can use, even if you decide to pursue a completely different career.
Likewise, if you run a web server for your friends’ websites and discover that the thing you enjoy most is figuring out how to get detailed performance measurements before optimizing and fine-tuning everything, this is also useful.
Once you have some experience you can generalize, and then use that information to narrow down individual fields that you might enjoy working in.
Follow Your Interests
Pay attention to what you enjoy doing, and what kind of tasks stimulate you. Having a wide pool of experience will tend to make the answer to the “what do I want to do for work” question very clear to you.
To put it another way: if you never go out and get any experience, the chances of you correctly guessing a satisfying job/career/industry/company combination for yourself are incredibly slim.
Keep thinking about previous experiences that you’ve had, and try to tease out commonalities and general truths that resonate with you (“I enjoy working in a small team”, “I hate traveling for work”, “big companies make me want to poke my eyeballs out,” etc.).
Side Effects May Include Networking
Going out and doing a few different types of work before you settle on one has many positive side effects. One is that you’ll meet a whole bunch of different people. Many great system administrators, software engineers, massage therapists, lawyers, and $EVERYONE_ELSE suffer from never having stepped far outside their ‘native,’ homogenous crowd, or at least not having stepped outside this crowd recently.
Another benefit of trying lots of different jobs is that this experience will give you contacts with a wide variety of personalities in a wide variety of professional fields. It will teach you how to create value for different kinds of people, how to talk to different kinds of people, and how to listen. And when you finally do choose an industry, it will make you a popular person in your crowd, since you can connect people that need each other.
Oh, and it will make your future job hunts a thousand times easier. So do it for selfish reasons, if that’s what it takes.
Enjoy the ride.