From calendars to coding: transitioning from administrative assistant to techspert
by Serena Lee
A few years ago, I was working at a major international investment bank as an executive assistant. After having been a temp in a department that had just lost its EA, I was moved to the trading floor. It was not a good fit, but I was told that if I didn’t want to be on the trading floor, the company would start looking for a replacement. I quit a few months later.
Now I’m at Bionic, a startup that helps seed and launch startups inside Fortune 500 companies. I joined as an administrative assistant, which I’ve been for almost two years. As is the case for all Bionic team members, I arrived very qualified for my role, and I’ve also grown in it tremendously. I love the work that I do. My team leads are fantastic. I know what I’m doing, professionally, and I know that I’m in a place that really fits me.
But the thing is, Bionic doesn’t want its employees to do a “good job” in their roles. We aren’t expected to want to stagnate. And sometimes, personal and professional growth makes you see that, perhaps, the role you’re in might be a role for your former self, not the self you want to be.
This philosophy makes sense. Until quite recently, general work culture has glorified the corporate ladder, in which you climbed up one, inflexible track for your entire career. But now, with the more commonplace “corporate lattice,” ideas can flow from top to bottom, from bottom to top, and across departments, and so can employees. Some of the biggest and most successful companies in the world have started to adopt this structure, and it pays off.
With this in mind, I started having some interesting conversations with our labs team, which is responsible for validating, testing, and building products with and for our partners. Some of that work includes computer programming, which has always intrigued me.
I had no idea how to code. I had never tried it before. So I decided to learn. I did some online bootcamps and a 10-week online course that teaches you how to build websites from start to finish. All were paid for by Bionic, since we have a professional development budget. When I’m finished, I’ll have a couple of websites to show for it.
I spoke with my team leads about my interest in coding and my desire to change my career path. Since we’re a startup, there are so many moving pieces and so many shifting timelines to consider, so I don’t have a start date in my new role. But the date itself matters less to me than the certainty that I can determine my future and be supported in reaching my goals by my employer and by my peers.
This type of culture has been tested and validated at companies far larger than this one. Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix, literally wrote the book on hiring practices that emphasized freedom, and she published a public document on Netflix’s rigid stance on flexibility…practices which ultimately led to her unexpected departure from the company. But she says that, in fact, job hopping is critical, and that folks should strive to change jobs every three to four years so that they can build their skill set, become more adaptive, and contribute more profoundly. Company cultures should expect and celebrate that practice, she says, not shut it down. Reid Hoffman famously called this regular transitioning a “tour of duty, a new employee-employer contract.” These are short-term commitments that yield specific results, not indefinite, long-term wanderings.
To be fair, I also know from personal experience that a zig-zag transition like mine is not possible at many companies. Even though startup culture is starting to spread to corporations (see: Eric Ries’s The Startup Way: How Modern Companies Use Entrepreneurial Management to Transform Culture and Drive Long-Term Growth), the traditional cultural hierarchy and strict career ladder is often the norm. If you’re on a fast track to vice president, you might get promoted within your department, but if you decide that you want to be in a different department, you’re out of luck. (Of course, if you like this more traditional structure, that’s okay, too.)
So, if you do work at such a company and decide that you want to transition your career in a major way, here’s the hard news: that company might not be a fit for who you want to become. It might not support your transition. It often wants a very specific hire for a very specific role, and there’s little room for you to rock the boat or pursue a new passion. But if you are committed to a new growth path anyway, here’s what I suggest:
- In your free time, double down on your interests: take a class, try an online tutorial, or meet some folks in that brave new world. You might have a friend in your department of interest who can point you in the right direction.
- Totally master that new skill. It might require additional courses, shadowing, interviewing folks in those roles, or a lot of reading.
- Find companies that value your hustle more than they value the credentials on your resume. Those companies exist, I promise. It might take a lot of applications and some serious time, but you don’t want to spend the rest of your life in a role that isn’t for you.
- If you can only get hired at a company based on your current role, tell your future team your career goals before you accept the offer. Speak with the team members about working with you to make it happen. They’ll respect your passion, and you won’t be stuck in a role with no future growth.
And if you do already work at a company that encourages your pursuit of side hustles and passions, just talk to people about it. Let it be known. You never know who’s looking for what. Do your research, talk to the right team, and speak with anyone who was in that role.
Lastly, if you’re in a leadership role at your company, you’re in a unique position to change its culture. Lead by example. Start an internal transition program. Celebrate folks who share their side hustles. Advocate for professional development stipends, however low. Start allocating workday time–one hour, to start–of “work on anything” time. You might be concerned that you’ll have to do more hiring, but one of the biggest reasons for job hopping is now boredom in one’s role, which you can help change. And if you do, I promise that you’ll see growth in the employees who shift their roles, as well as in the employees who want to stay put. If you treat people as people, with real interests and futures, they’ll always bring their whole person to the job at hand. And the best employees always bring their whole person.