Recently, I've been thinking a lot about human centred design, and how the past two years I've effectively re-designed (or re-engineered?) a career change path that better reflects my values, enables me to stay involved in select, web/data-science focussed astronomy projects, and enables me to work on new challenges with the aim of making a positive impact on the world. It's rare that people have the opportunity to that. Some may see it as completely self-indulgent, others may see it as finding a new calling, others might call it a mid-life career crisis.
But the more people I meet, the more I discover that I'm not the only one who is forging a new and unique pathway to a successful career. Every other week I meet people who are eschewing the well-trodden career path and flipping their lifestyle and careers in unexpected ways. For academic researchers this can be a challenge. Leaving the field is often seen as being negative – a failure of sorts, and proof of the "publish or perish" mantra. It can also lead to somewhat of an existential crisis, since much of what you do quickly becomes "your identity", whether you meat it to or not.
For me the past two years have been an unexpected adventure. I would not have had as many different experiences and opportunities had I not taken a leap into the unknown, and allowed myself to take a break from full-time work. Although I knew I would be ok – at least financially, this was a very bold move. Throughout the year I said "no" to a number of good opportunities, that would have meant settling for the same type of work. Melbourne's growing startup ecosystem and the need for universities and academics to innovate, as well as the rise of data science in academia and tech, have played a major role in re-designing my career. So was the growing realisation that if I were to leave astronomy research – which to a large extent I already had.... it had to be for something amazing. Something meaningful. Purposeful.
There was another reason for this new mindset. Early 2015, one of my closest friends was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She had already gone through round one of breast cancer five years earlier so I knew this was bad news. while the brain surgery was successful, the cancer had already spread to he lungs, liver and bones, so I knew that the next year or two was going to be a really tough time for her. She wasn't about to go down without a fight. Then in early 2016 my mum need major heart surgery. We knew this was coming.
So taking a 6-month career break after leaving my role at Swinburne made complete sense to sense to me. It meant I could take time off to help look after mum after her heart valve surgery, and I could help out Jo and her family at the drop of a hat, and for whenever they needed some extra support. I could drive her to and from the Alfred, keep her company during chemo sessions, support her during oncology and x-ray appointments, hold crutches, take her out for morning coffee, be her chaperone for city lunch catchups, do the kinder drop off and pick up, drink cups of tea, make kick cancers ass! action plans, and gossip about friends and talk rubbish about seemingly inconsequential things.
It also meant I could spend a lot of time pursuing new opportunities in Australia and abroad – including San Francisco and London, cities I've lived in previously and are close to my heart. It also game me the time to exploring new opportunities in astronomy that focussed on tech and data science, and reconnecting with a city that was fast becoming a mecca for design-focussed tech, start-ups, and co-working spaces.
Now I'm in a position where I can live and work anywhere in the world – and I feel like it's the most exciting time of my life.
A year of seeking out new experiences & opportunities:
- I had the opportunity to take on a number of consulting projects.
- I spent time working at Inspire9 – Richmond and One Roof – Melbourne soaking in the startup freelance culture and meeting talented and interesting people, relentlessly pursuing their passions.
- I spent considerable time learning about and understanding Melbourne's startup ecosystem. I attended numerous Melbourne Accelerator Program (MAP), Melbourne Conversations, Startup Vic, and Launch Vic events, and digested white papers & reports.
- I met many of the influencers throughout Melbourne's tech community, including the amazingly talented people behind Girl Geek Academy, Fitzroy Academy, That Startup Show, Pause Fest, and Future Assembly.
- Thanks to the Fitzroy Academy, I had the privilege of attending Pause Fest – Australia's premier Creative, Tech and Business conference. I blown away by many of the speakers, notably
- I spoke at Future Assembly – Australia's emergent technology festival. I met the incredibly clever and innovative team behind Saber Astronautics. I test rode a Tesla.
- I worked with social enterprises and non-profit organisations to develop tech solutions for social challenges.
- I had the privilege of presenting a talk about Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) to technologists at Zendesk (one of RHoKs three national sponsors), alongside fellow RHoK organiser Cal Foulner. As part of RHoK, I also worked with Free to Feed, to overcome technical barriers that were affecting their ability to scale up.
- I had the opportunity to spend a month in the Bay Area reconnecting with old friends, astronomers, and data scientists. I spent a week at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science (BIDS), learning about data science techniques and tools in academia and industry, machine learning algorithms from an astrophysical "big data" perspective, code optimisation and various other bits'n'bobs. As part of this I had the opportunity to spend a day working at GitHub HQ in SOMA, on new creative coding projects, and to gain insight into what it's like to work for a world leading software company.
- I've learned a lot more about the Science to Data Science (S2D2) fellowship program through fellow my astro colleagues and S2DS alums Diego Capozzi and Amy McQuillan. Diego also introduced me to the CEO Jason Muller (originally from Melbourne) and we've had a few email exchanges about the impact S2DS – the wins and challenges, and how the London and Melbourne data science communities compare.
- I created techsavvyastro.io a website that brings tech skills, tutorials, and industry knowledge to astronomers; promotes blue sky and community developed software and tools; and empowers researchers to re-design their careers.
- I indulged in my love of design and ceramics and spent a week in Copenhagen, before flying to the UK for the .Astronomy8 conference in Oxford. I presented the Day Zero – Skills Training Introductory talk. I also had the opportunity to reconnect with friends from Liverpool.
- In July 2016 I had the very great honour of not only meeting, but staying with the wonderful Mike & Shuna Dickson in their Notting Hill home. Mike is the founder of Whizz–Kidz and the Rainmaker Foundation, and the author of the book; Our Generous Gene. Together they are a force to be reckoned with. Incredibly generous and inspiring, I hold their words of wisdom close.
- I spent considerable time learning about data science roles and teams in business and tech; understanding what the priorities are, what companies are driven by, how to build effective data science teams, how data scientists work with product and engineering teams, and the value of building cross-functional teams.
- I worked with Astronomy Australia Ltd (as a member of AeRAC) to develop a 5-year national computing and infrastructure investment plan, to ensure continued access to HPC facilities, sustainable data access projects, and delivery of computing, data science, and tech skills training. This resulted in a new Astronomy Data & Compute Services (ADACS) initiative, funded at ~$1.5M/yr.
- I've learned a lot about product and UX; how teams are built (or rather, how effective product teams should be built); where product sits within startups and more established tech companies; the relationship between product and UX; and where data science teams fit into the mix (product development? evaluation?)
- I had the opportunity to learn and practise human centred design methodologies in a variety of contexts; mainly through my work with RHoK partner organisations and non-profits, and working with a small team as part of my IDEO +Acumen Human Centred Design course. I also figured out that it is possible to have a successful career in both data science and human centred design (my ideal role), and that many organisations and companies are embracing this already.
- I had the honour of presenting at the .Astronomy9 conference in Cape Town, and working with incredibly talented and fun research students and postdocs from South Africa, the UK and US.
- I learned about Cape Town's tech and startup culture, including the Silicon Cape initiative – a catalyst for tech in the cape, and joined the Future Females movement. I met South African and Kenyan astronomers leading numerous education projects throughout Africa and in other developing countries.
- I had the opportunity to explore the Western Cape, visited Addo Elephant National Park, kayaked through Wilderness, and visited several conservation game reserves. I also hugged an African elephant, or rather he hugged me.
Designing for purpose
It's been a great two years. It gave me the time and confidence to jump on opportunities that I otherwise would have had to turn down. It enabled me to explore potential career paths, and opened the door to new experiences and new people. All that was required was a shift in mindset, a change of perspective, saying "yes!" to exciting new opportunities, getting out of my comfort zone, and a polite "no" to things that had no real benefit or purpose.
Re-designing your life and career is not always easy. You need to have some level of financial security. To make the most of it you some level of self-awareness; a sense of what type of work drives you, makes you get up in the morning. It helps if you have projects that you're passionate about, regardless of whether they are attached to a pay check.
Human centred design is a great way to figure out what elements of your life and career are the most important, what satisfies you most, and what a fulfilling career might look like. This is also a great way find your story – to arrange the details of your life into a narrative that helps you move forward and keeps you on track. This is really important when you're changing careers. You need to to be able to tell a story that convinces employers that you are not only capable, but willing to embrace everything that comes with a changing career.