How learning new skills can fast track career change

Learning new skills not only fast tracks a career change, it is a prerequisite for one. I have been through two major career changes. The first was from working in an academic environment to a corporate one. The second was a shift from being an intrapreneur to becoming an entrepreneur. These career changes required me to learn new skills quickly and adapt my mentality to totally new ways of working. It was only with these skills that I was able to found and grow my own start-up, TidyChoice.

At the start of my career I worked for research centres. Firstly, I did my PHD in Computer Science at Eurecom in France and then I worked for Vicomtech in Spain. In both cases I was in an environment mainly driven by academic results. I had incredibly deep domain knowledge of very specific areas of technology. I am very curious and wanted to broaden my horizons and technology knowledge so I looked for a commercial technology role.

In 2005, I became a researcher for Accenture at their laboratory in France. The shift in environment naturally required me to learn new skills and adopt a new mindset. My role as an intrapreneur for a large company was to make sure that the company was at the forefront of new technology. In contrast to academic research, everything that I worked on had to be financially valuable and efficient. Business cycles in technology are very short so the research projects I undertook were scrutinised very regularly. I really enjoyed the change in pace and the speed at which projects could progress. I also loved conducting research on new emerging technologies.

I gained invaluable commercial skills at Accenture. The decisions I made had to be financially justified and, in worst case scenarios, certain projects with long-term ambitions were abandoned due to short-term needs. In order to succeed I quickly learnt to develop my business skills to accompany my research.

In 2011 I moved to London to take on new challenges and spent three years leading the Tech R&D department of JLL, another large corporation. I continued to work as an intrapreneur combining my technology expertise with my acquired business skills. Having run technology innovation projects for large corporations, I hankered after running my own technology project and managing my own business. When I came across the right market opportunity, I grabbed it. This was the start of my second major career change and put me on the steepest learning curve of all - from being an intrapreneur to being an entrepreneur.

The mentality shift from working within a large, stable company to a start-up cannot be understated. When you work for someone else you have a specific set of responsibilities but working for yourself means that you are responsible for everything.

At Accenture and JLL I was expected to provide financially viable technology, but to make my own business successful, I also had to learn skills relating to marketing, PR, sales, finance, operations etc. It is extremely daunting to start your own business.

Learning new skills quickly is often the difference between success and failure. My journey from academia to commercial research and to managing technology innovation gave me the confidence that I could learn new skills and overcome challenges. I enjoy learning new things and have a natural curiosity. I now see that my journey and career changes would have been impossible without the crucial skill of learning new skills.

There are several approaches that helped increase the speed at which I acquired new skills. Here are a few that might help you too:

Team up

You don’t need to learn alone and as an entrepreneur a lot of what you learn comes from those around you. In my start-up, I teamed up with a business partner who came a financial background. Together, we attended courses and meet-ups. At Google Campus we benefitted from simply listening to other people’s stories. For instance, one fact we learnt was that in our industry retention rates were the metric that we should focus on rather than simply growth.

Another initiative which was very beneficial was SwitchPitch. Groups of other entrepreneurs had only 10 minutes to learn our business and then describe it to an audience. This helped us understand how others perceived our business and what areas required greater clarity, or even development. Discussing your ideas with other entrepreneurs also helps validate your idea, in a safe space. Learn from the knowledge of the people around you and always be testing.

Don’t just read, do!

As a start-up, where everything is at stake and money is limited, it can be tempting to buy loads of books or spend a fortune on an MBA to develop one’s business acumen. However, whilst learning is important, the best form of learning is in application. The money spent on your MBA could be invested into your business. Your time spent reading books could be time spent establishing your business.

When you are an entrepreneur and are developing new skills, it is important to be autonomous. The longer you wait and listen to concerned relatives suggesting, “Why not get a normal job with a salary?”, the less likely you are to succeed. There’s never the perfect time and you never have all the information. Go out and do it - even if you fail you’ll learn so much more by failing than you ever will with your nose in a book.

Never stop learning

Competition moves on, technology is fast-changing, and skills get outdated quickly. Even today, I am still learning how to design a scalable product that can sustain increasing levels of traffic. Moreover, particularly with a business dependant on self-employed workers, you will always be surprised and challenged by new human situations. When pursuing a career change you need to know what your strengths and weaknesses are, and be in a constant state of learning. If your body gets fit by doing exercise, your brain get fits by learning. Make learning a habit, you’ll live longer!

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