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Changing job roles, or even career paths, can bring many advantages – namely, broadening your skill set and bolstering your career capital.

About six years ago, I decided to pause my software engineering career to pursue research in computer science. After stints in graduate school and data science, my career eventually circled back to software engineering, this time in a new role with a fresh perspective and new interests.

It’s easy to picture your career as a series of milestones and time estimates, but the reality is rarely that linear. There needs to be more advice in our industry about building your career in a non-linear way and doing that sustainably.

Building career capital

A non-linear career can take many forms, one of which is changing roles, either through taking a job at a new company – potentially with a new title – or pivoting into a different industry. A change like this can be daunting, so it’s crucial to set yourself up for success by choosing the right role.

In his book So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, Cal Newport suggests that the skills and knowledge you accumulate during your career – also known as career capital – are essential for designing a fulfilling work life.

Applying the career capital theory is valuable for choosing a job in three ways. The first is that there is a lot of interesting work out there. Skills, particularly technical skills, are broadly applicable. Several jobs could be ideal for you if you write code, but they don't all have the title “software engineer” or “programmer”. Similarly, if you have experience in client relations, “client relations manager” is only one of the many potentially rewarding jobs you could do. Your next job might be one you had not heard of before interviewing.

The second reason is that changing roles can be challenging, and seeking opportunities that match your existing skills and knowledge can make that transition much more manageable. Learning a new culture, deliverables, terminology, and standards, can take a massive amount of time. Starting a role already equipped with some essential skills can help you be productive sooner.

The third reason is that utilizing your most valuable skills and expertise can open up unique career opportunities. For example, knowledge of a particular technology or problem area can be extremely beneficial to potential customers or employers. You could also leverage those skills by consulting, building a startup, or running an open source project.

Focusing on career capital can help you consider potential employment opportunities more practically.

Speeding up and slowing down

A non-linear career means more than just jumping between roles, though. Another possibility is a change in trajectory. Career trajectory is complex, and it’s easy to think the longer you stay in a job, the more promotions, higher salary, or wider scope you’ll receive. However, this simple model only sometimes reflects reality. 

Reality can look like taking things slow for a while when prioritizing family or community over work. Alternatively, it could be working double-time to excel in a job you love. These cycles can happen over weeks, months, or even years to make up a non-linear career. Handling them well requires reflection, preparation, and communication.

Reflection: Having situational awareness of events is key. This may be pertinent in different ways depending on your own circumstances, that of the team, or perhaps the whole company. For example, taking on a high-impact, greenfield project might be a good idea when you’re fully onboarded and looking to grow quickly, but ill-suited if you’re still learning where things are and how things work. Of course, you could also find yourself in the middle of a global pandemic with work projects being the last thing on your mind.

Preparation: Once you know, with reasonable certainty, what your intentions and opportunities are, it's time to make a plan. This planning could include determining how to off-load responsibilities in the case of leave or ramping up on new duties for a novel project. It could also include drafting a project proposal to show initiative or updating documentation so your team can function in your absence. Whichever the case is, both future you and your team will appreciate the extra care taken to set them up for success.

Communication: Finally, communication is essential for setting and managing expectations. This process should be iterative and collaborative, particularly if multiple people are affected by your plans. Overall, it’s better to communicate until everyone feels as prepared as they can be.


Ultimately, everybody’s career is non-linear at points, and that’s fine. Shortly after starting research in graduate school, my career slowed down by almost every metric I could think of. After a while, I learned that I liked working with data and doubled down on that to create a brand new career in data engineering.

To wrap up, here are the two key points to remember:

    1.    When you’re interested in changing the content of your job, remember to take advantage of the skills that you’ve already spent time accumulating.

    2.    When you expect the pace of your job to change, reflect on how it’s likely to change, make a preparation plan for yourself and your team(s), and communicate as early and often as possible.  

And a final note to hiring managers: be open to non-traditional backgrounds. Transferable skills can be powerful and you might hire someone interested in and capable of advancing quickly after onboarding.