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How to Make a Successful Midlife Career Change

Here’s how I triumphed starting over in a new industry at age 40

Song_about_summer / Shutterstock
Song_about_summer / Shutterstock

In 2013, at the age of 40, my whole life changed. Due to the Great Recession and an unexpected death, I had to shutter my family construction business, which I helped grow for nearly 20 years. Without a job, with a growing family to support and armed with a resume that basically just said “roofing,” I was forced to make a drastic midlife career change.

Seven years later, I’ve gone from software developer trainee to director of training and curriculum at a software engineering services company. I have about a dozen direct reports and am responsible for the quality of our nationwide engineering training programs.

Looking back at the past few years, there are several things I’ve learned that can help others make a successful career transition, whether planned or unexpected.

Look for opportunities to do what you like

As a math major in college, friends always came to me for help. I liked this tutoring role. When an opportunity arose at my company to become a trainer, I volunteered. It wasn’t something I had formal training in, but because I enjoyed the duties and responsibilities, I was motivated to succeed.

When you start a new career path, or change industries, a natural reaction is to limit your focus for growth. I had a new job as a software developer. So naturally, I should focus on coding.

Don’t be afraid to look around and discover other positions or trajectories outside of where you landed. If you like to work with people more than technology, or technology more than people, make a lateral move. The passion and inquisitive spirit you bring to something you like will benefit your career goals and showcase your greatest value to any employer.

Take inventory of your experience and skills

One of the hardest things to do in any job search, much less a career change, is convince others how your past experience or skills apply to this new position.

For me it took a while, and the insistence of others, to realize I had team leadership experience. I knew I had led construction teams, but because that was physical, rather than mental work, I didn’t fully realize how transferable that experience was to software development.

Take the time to carefully reflect on your experience and skills. Ask others what they think you’re good at. Map out how what you’ve done applies to what you want to do. Have a well-planned answer to the inevitable interview question, “How do your past roles apply to this position?”

Don’t expect to feel fully formed

Imposter syndrome is real. Because you can’t do anything about it, there’s no use worrying about it.

I give that advice, but I can’t say I follow it 100% of the time. I’m a person who likes to have all the facts and weigh all the options before moving forward.

It’s ok to move forward – on a decision or into a new career – even if you don’t know everything. It’s ok to be uncomfortable. If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re probably not challenging yourself or growing.

Looking back, times when I’ve felt the most uncomfortable are the times when I’ve grown the most. What could be more uncomfortable than joining a software development training program with people half your age and with way more prior experience?

Humility is huge

I could sit here, spout this advice and make it all about me. “I made it because I’m so great.”

Part of my success is my hard work. But success will always be determined by those around you. Your team, mentors, bosses, clients, family and friends all play a role in any career change.

Stay humble as you grow. You don’t know everything and there are always opportunities for improvement. Have empathy for yourself as you stretch, and for others you see in a similar position. Remember where you came from and use that as motivation to help yourself and others move forward.

I can’t say my career transition was easy. But it has irrevocably changed the trajectory for me and my family for the better. Better is possible. Go make it happen.

Dan Reuther is director of training and curriculum at Catalyte

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