So many of the women that I often talk to want to change career or change industry but they’re scared to do it because they’re worried it means throwing away all the knowledge, training and experience they’ve acquired to date.
I put a call out on LinkedIn for Career Change stories and I’m incredibly grateful to Afiya Chohollo for sharing her story. She demonstrates how transferrable her skills are from one industry to another.
Afiya is the Senior Technical Program Manager at Onfido.
Tell us about your current career
Onfido is the technology company for identity verification. Onfido helps businesses verify the identities of their customers using just a picture of an ID card and a selfie.
My role and my team’s function has 2 core objectives: delivery of company goals and doing so in a way that drives best practices.
On the delivery side it involves driving cross functional initiatives where design, infrastructure design & build, software development, marketing, research, testing activities need to be defined and coordinated to deliver a company goal. Or to temporarily product and project managing a specific product or project or proof of concept until it can be maintained by a team who can own it in operations.
The driving best practice side of things is where the traditional PMO activities come in like reporting, status updates and supporting teams set stretching and measurable OKRs. But also being a neutral party to support with agile coaching and ceremonies like retros or backlog grooming, ensuring we have an accurate roadmap, and spotting areas for improvement (by measuring performance) and doing something about it!
What do you love about your work
The breadth and depth of the scope of activity. There are not many roles that span right across a Tech and product organisation (and beyond). While for some specialism in a particular technology or area is preferred, I like to think I specialise in the skills of program management in any context.
Within the tech context it means I get a complete view of how it all comes together and preempt dependencies as well opportunities – from cloud infrastructure design to website delivery and everything in between.
The product context equally excites me due to the challenges we are solving. How we can verify and validate trust in world where you may be working/transacting/dating/granting access to people you haven’t and may never meet?
Trusted online identities is a fantastic disruptive space to work in but it’s also important how we do it. I lead the delivery on initiatives on building ethical AI so we can set standards around machine learning solutions that protect individuals privacy rights and are fair to the human individual interacting with the technology.
I have tested a few times to be extroverted and with my job you interact with everyone – working with so many different people is probably my favourite part.
Tell us about a typical day
There isn’t one!
But activities can include planning – then much more contingency planning, writing documentation, defining and writing requirements, backlog grooming, meetings, facilitating technical discussions, coaching.
It really depends but a key responsibility for me is to ensure everyone I work with has what they need when they need it. That may be a wireframe sketch and content brief after talking with a customer or internal stakeholder so a designer so they can produce a design mock-up.
Or the credentials and account configuration for a new trial client to securely test with us. Also a fair bit of troubleshooting when a developer is blocked on something particularly when this is related to a dependency with other teams or interfaces into other systems.
This is where having the wider view helps and honestly you don’t have to be an expert in everything you just have to look at the issue and investigate what could be happening – it was the same in manufacturing what isn’t working and how can we improve it?
Tell us about your career change
On reflection I have changed my career several times in fact at every juncture. I jokingly told some students who came in for an internship day that I have worked in every letter in STEM and it’s true.
The constant however (other than the change) has been that I specialised in project/program management.
I started off in Nuclear materials research [S], then program management in a global manufacturing company where I delivered technology solutions to operations that had been the same longer than I had been alive and also ended up managing a huge construction project (honestly haven’t a clue but one of the best learning accomplishments)[E&M].
My change before last was definitely driven by a lifestyle desire. I had grown tired of living is small towns in the middle of nowhere and desperately wanted to move back down south to London.
I have always loved technology but had done a more traditional engineering degree (which I loved) so felt that I couldn’t work in tech without retraining.
Low and behold I ended up working with the UK’s largest online grocer on technology programs that scaled nationwide operations [T]! And not just the delivery but the financial planning of this too [M] Of course I had to learn but you do at any new job!
I like to understand how things work and investigating is a large part of the gig. Working in various industries has also shown me how much is very similar and also helps me approach problems in a unique way.
My most recent career change was driven by the desire to work in a disruptive tech space and to also have a voice at the table on something so important as access and identity [T]
What challenges did you face along the way
Imposter syndrome! It stemmed from high achievements that came as a surprise to me early on in my career and me wondering how I did it. I had a publication before I graduated, finished top of my class with a first despite taking 6 weeks off in my final year to have surgery (I truly thought I would not graduate) and securing a graduate scheme that flew me around the world for big audacious projects.
I always questioned how it all happened, no matter how hard I worked,
I think just before every change juncture I was this deeply unsure about myself and what I wanted to do and more than anything wanted to be clear – the process was the same – despair, looking at random roles, considering a pay cut /starting again and not valuing my skills worth.
Then at the moment I get sure about what it is that I want a great opportunity appears. Once I do get clear I am very purposeful and strategic about my next career move.
What or who helped you in your journey
WHO: I have had great official and unofficial mentors, sponsors and coaches in my career who saw more in me than I did in myself particularly in the early stages that I have a lot of gratitude to.
Working in male dominated industries these were always men but they bucked the narrative of some of the difficult interactions many women face in these fields.
Later on I had a great role model and support from my first female boss which was invaluable in my last career change. I also had support from my peers/friends who are also making strides and changes in their respective careers this helps as a motivating force and support network.
WHAT: willingness to learn, the ONLY benefit of imposter syndrome is feeling like you need to be an expert in everything so I am always learning.
I also hate program managing anything I don’t understand (which unless you do the same project over and over again will be often) – so while yes I did not know anything about construction those years ago, I learnt what I needed to so the builders got the job done on time and on budget with no injuries – I am not architect but I designed the offices, labs and innovation area.
Whilst I have worked (and still working) to shrug off the negatives of imposter syndrome I still take this learning desire through my career. I want to learn and will but I am much more comfortable saying if I don’t know now.
So when I ended up drawing the cloud architecture designs as opposed to building architecture I decided I better go and study AWS solution architect associate and that’s just what I am doing.
My degree – my family and friends who don’t quite understand what I do still often ask so are you using your degree then? err Yes!
Whilst I don’t profess that university is the be all and end all, it would be remiss of me to not recognise having an Engineering degree has opened up so many doors for me.
No I do not remember any of the gaussian derivations I had to do but suddenly when having a discussion with a research engineer about a lazy learning algorithm he is building using (not by hand as I had to in my 2012 exam might I add) we are able to relate and it’s the way of thinking about a problem that taking STEM subjects instils in you that I use everyday
What’s the best thing about changing career
You don’t get bored. Change is scary but the tools you collect on every change makes you invaluable
Your top tips for women thinking about changing career
In my case change meant industry context, but I found my thread and my core skills that I could take with me and build on each time.
Change doesn’t always mean starting again and even if it does, do not disregard what you have done before because it gives you a unique and advantageous perspective.
There have been numerous occasions where I am able to share how a different industries solved a similar or parallel challenge so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
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Thank you so much Afiya for your amazingly inspirational story. And if you read this and were nodding along to the imposter syndrome piece, always wondering if you’re ‘good enough’, ‘experienced enough’, ‘clever enough’, then I recommend you read this blog post about how to stop the inner critic wrecking your career.
If you enjoyed this story please do share to inspire other women considering a career change.
And if you have a career change story to share, please do get in touch, I’d LOVE to hear from you. You might not think your story is interesting but honestly it’s SO powerful to hear about what other women have done.