It’s that time of year. Facebook is full of photos of caps and gowns, commencement speeches are in the news, and all across the country our future female leaders are trying to figure out how to launch their careers.
I was like most of you. I knew I wanted to do something great, something fulfilling, something I loved, and something where I could have a big impact. I had a diploma, but it did not provide a road map to my future. Even Siri could not have directed me through the twists and turns of my career in technology.
Since I now consider myself lucky to have found all of those things in my career, I’ll share some of my personal advice to those of you trying to figure out what in the world to do next.
As an aspiring sportscaster, I decided to take a year off after college and apply to broadcast journalism grad school. I moved to San Francisco because it seemed like a cool place to live, and I took a job as an admin at Oracle, because I needed to pay rent.
MORE FROM STACEY EPSTEIN: Bring back bossy: Sheryl Sandberg is wrong about this one
Yes, that’s how I “fell” into my 20-plus year tech career. I knew nothing about technology, but as I got more immersed in work, my eyes were opened to the industry. I quickly moved from admin into marketing, then sales, then alliances. And after six years, I knew exactly what I wanted to do long term and haven’t wavered since.
It’s okay not to have your career path planned out. I never thought I’d end up in technology, and it took a few years of exploring different positions to get settled on a path that was perfect for me. So don’t stress too much about making the wrong job choice when you’re looking for that first opportunity. Just do something!
Even if you find yourself in a role or a company you don’t like, that is a great learning experience in itself. And as you go, you’ll learn from each experience and can use those as building blocks to get to the place you eventually want to be.
Like many of you, after college graduation I moved back in with my mom. The day I arrived home, she said, “You can stay here three months for free. After that, you either move out or pay me rent at the going rate.”
Mom didn’t need my money. She just wanted me to make use of my education and take responsibility for my own livelihood. So when three months passed, I got into gear and formed the plan to move to San Francisco. I lived paycheck to paycheck for several years, but it forced me out of a comfortable place and got my career going. Who knows how long I would have stayed at home waiting tables had I not been not-so-gently urged to get on with things?
We know what a doctor or teacher does from an early age, but what about a marketer, product manager or TV producer? In order to find out how many other cool career options exist, talk to your neighbors, to your parents’ friends, to anyone.
I was a liberal arts/English major who wanted to be a sportscaster, and looking back, I realize I had no way of knowing what a CMO at a software company actually does and no way of knowing it would be a great fit for me.
So seek out anyone who has a career that looks somewhat interesting to you. Ask them what they like and don’t like. What a day-in-the-life is like. What it takes to be successful. How they came to work in their profession. What their previous jobs were. And when you find something that really sparks your interest, ask them for a job!
There’s no better way to understand an industry than to read publications and news in that space. I remember running on the treadmill and reading Red Herring(a popular tech pub back in the day) cover to cover. It helped me realize what areas of the industry did and didn’t interest me. And the knowledge I gained helped me move ahead quickly in my career.
Today with social tools, it’s even easier. Think you want to get into high tech? Follow Re/code, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and PandoDaily on Twitter. Read everything they tweet. Think you want to get into fashion? Then get the Vogue app on your phone.
Make sure the organization you choose offers advancement opportunities for women. You don’t want to take an entry-level job hoping to move up, only to learn that you’ll have to work twice as hard as your male counterpart to climb up the ladder.
How many women in leadership positions did you speak to in the hiring process? Are there any women on the management team at all? Do you get the feeling there’s a culture of balance? Sad as it is, there are still plenty of companies that offer less pay and less advancement for women, so let’s starve them of our great talents.
There is nothing wrong with not knowing what you want to do. Your first few jobs or internships are opportunities to help you figure that out. Just remember to know your value and be your own advocate — research, read, explore, be open to new opportunities and follow your passions. You’ll be surprised how things fall into place, even if you can’t ask Siri for directions.