Writer and editor who crafts stories about travel, food, feminism, and communication. Formerly at a hedge fund in NYC, currently a content-creator-at-large roaming around Latin America. Big fan of carrot cake and honesty.Find her at kathmeetsworld.com or on Instagram @kplumhoff
Sarah Mogin never used to like writing open-ended essays in school. She found herself much more motivated by tangible problems.
Calculus had some of those—she never had trouble with her math homework—but when she was in school she never envisioned just how much she could incorporate that love of solution-finding into her daily work, much less that she would have a career as a developer one day.
"I've always gotten a lot of motivation out of solving complex problems of any sort," says Sarah.
After college, Sarah made a big move to New York and found herself in a job working at a digital marketing agency. From there she began to gain a better sense of the pathways to new opportunities that existed in the digital space and took the steps she needed to make a significant life switch.
Now, as an Associate Tech Director at design and development company Work & Co, she's able to work on a diverse set of projects and apply a creative lens that makes use of all of her past-life knowledge.
We sat down with Sarah to hear more about her career switch and what advice she has for other people with non-tech experience who are looking for ways to make the most of all they know.
Taking risks to capitalize on opportunities
When Sarah first moved to New York, she got into digital marketing via a $10-an-hour Craigslist ad. With plenty of opportunities to learn practical skills like search engine optimization, social media marketing, and writing online press releases, she came up the curve quickly.
"I wasn't super passionate about those things, but I appreciated having a job and concrete tasks, so I dove in," she says. After a few more years there, she had started a PR department, written training documents and marketing materials, and hosted webinars and seminars.
"It was just kind of a time in my life where I kept saying yes to things and experimenting. It was a way to keep learning," says Sarah, who realized that she wanted to continue her learning in more formal ways, too, like going back to school.
Having spent some time honing her skills in communication and social media, she realized she wanted to tap more deeply into other aspects of the digital space. She had long had an interest in web development and programming. "I didn't have a class on it in high school. I didn't know anyone whose parents were programmers," she says. "I had some hesitancy about making the change, but I wanted to have a skill and combine what I could do naturally with someone teaching me an advanced skill or trade."
So she took a risk and left her job and enrolled in a 12-week coding bootcamp.
Dealing with imposter syndrome
The bootcamp ended up being a great decision, says Sarah, but that wasn't immediately apparent. Finding a new role coming out of her training was tough. She filled out 100 job applications and found that many companies didn't want to take a chance on someone with a non-traditional background. "They just didn't understand that I was this well-rounded person with a lot of skills already but now had added coding, and I was good at it," she says.
Eventually, Simon & Schuster bit, and Sarah got her first official role in tech, coding in Ruby on Rails (and enjoying free books that came with the job).
After she'd gained enough experience there and when it came time to leave that company and look for something new, though, Sarah was daunted by having to prove herself all over again.
She wanted to work somewhere that could meld strong creative and design foundations with technology, thinking a job like that would fit her interests and abilities well. When she heard about Work & Co, she knew it was the place for her—but wasn't sure if they would agree.
"I liked that there was a defined focus on products and experiences, that everything they built was intended to be an enduring product that people could use every day. To me, that was going to be fun to work on. But, in addition to being a tech outsider, I was also an agency outsider," she says. "I had only worked in-house."
Sarah ended up getting a job offer from Work & Co, which was open to her self-taught background. Without a ton of code samples under her belt yet, she started as a developer but quickly moved up with team members around her acknowledging that she was at a higher skill level than they initially thought.
She was able to take on a range of complex projects, in sectors ranging from education to nonprofit to retail and on products that span websites and CMS platforms to e-commerce and chatbots. It's been seven years since she made the switch and today Sarah is not only still a hands-on developer with a diverse toolkit, but she's also an award-winning technology leader and mentor to other employees.
5 tips for making a career switch work for you
Sarah kept—pleasantly—surprising her team. From being able to lead client projects (leaning on her digital marketing agency experience) to knowing how to hire new team members, she was able to lean into the skills she honed in her past roles and make an even bigger impact.
Here's the advice she has for other people looking to do the same thing:
- Recognize that as a career-switcher, you're bringing much-needed updated thinking. "Even when I was a new engineer and sometimes thought of myself as an imposter, coming from a bootcamp, I had a more up-to-date engineering background than some of the other developers," reflects Sarah.
- Be confident about what you bring to the table. Sarah says her past experience has allowed her to confidently volunteer for new roles and to share her opinion. "I have context from my prior life that can be helpful," she says. "It's good to have those skills in your back pocket in addition to what people are just expecting you to have as an engineer."
- But start with crushing your main job first. "It's easy to get excited about initiatives like helping to recruit or leading meetings or events. I really love doing those things, but you have to make sure you're doing your day-to-day responsibilities really well," says Sarah. "It's a lot easier for people to invest in you if they already see your success."
- Manage up by taking initiative. "Sometimes people have trouble relinquishing control or figuring out how you can help," says Sarah, who recommends just getting started. "Rather than proposing an idea to someone, you can show them something you've already put together. Instead of saying, 'I want to write a post on our company blog,' you can say, 'Here's an outline for a post.'"
- Pay it forward via recruiting. "I wanted to be involved [in hiring] right away because as someone who had just broken into the industry, I wanted to help people like me, or even people different from me, but who felt like outsiders for any other reason," says Sarah. "My experience has taught me that there are a lot of different ways to get to where you need to be as a good engineer. At the end of the day, it's just about whether you can do the job, and less about where you came from or what you've done before."
Naoko Takano's title alone suggests how comfortable she is switching cultures: she is a Globalizer at mission-driven tech company Automattic, whose products include WooCommerce, Jetpack, Tumblr, and WordPress.com.
Naoko's job involves working with volunteers in the WordPress community to translate materials and run other localization projects.
"It's about transferring the idea—not so much about just translation, but doing the messaging, and getting people excited," Naoko explains.
Long before she joined Automattic, Naoko had opportunities to practice transferring and communicating complicated ideas across cultures, first as a Japanese exchange student in the U.S., then as a working professional for American companies, and later as a freelancer working with clients around the world.
We sat down with Naoko to hear more about her career journey, how her relationship with language has evolved, and what advice she has for members of global teams working to communicate across languages, countries, and cultures.
Building a Base of Biculturalism
Naoko is based in Tokyo, Japan, but had previously spent 13 years living in the U.S. before returning to her home country.
Her first stay in the States was as a high school exchange student in Missouri. The lack of other Japanese speakers forced her to work on her English, but her confidence took a while to catch up. "Until the last couple of years in college, I was very quiet and didn't like to be in the spotlight," she says.
Recognizing that parts of her personality changed depending on her linguistic context was an important early lesson, as it has taught her to use patience and empathy when working with other people who weren't communicating in their first language. "I'm more outgoing in Japanese," explains Naoko, smiling.
Naoko had initially returned to Japan to finish high school, but didn't like the experience. "Japanese schools are very strict, and they cram in learning at school and after school," says Naoko. "In the States, I thought learning was fun, and even though it was difficult, I could really feel the progress."
At home, Naoko experienced a period of burnout and depression so intense that she stopped attending school—know as futōkō (不登校) in Japan—it was that experience which inspired her to return to the States to pursue education in an environment that worked better for her. (This taught her another key lesson about the importance of surrounding herself with people and places that are aligned with her values, as she has during her 12-year career at Automattic.)
While Japanese had been her favorite subject in her home country, she didn't think she could switch to studying English literature and have the same result. "It'd be hard to keep up or do well," she says. "Another thing I liked was art, so I studied graphic communication."
Visual art and design was another way of communicating, after all. And it led her to her dream career—albeit indirectly.
Learning Alone and Learning with Others
Naoko started her career doing freelance web design. When she graduated college, blogs were just starting to become popular. She'd tried a few other platforms before finding WordPress in 2003, just a few months after co-founders Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little first released it, and she immediately committed herself to it.
"I was always in front of my computer doing something, making things. I was teaching myself from the web and some books," says Naoko. One of those books, Naoko says, was actually authored by her now-colleague, Jeffrey Zeldman, a Principal Designer at Automattic.
And even when she had a job in Detroit, working for an auto company where her Japanese and English skills were in high demand, she'd come home from work, sit down at the computer, and keep exploring. Some of that at-home exploration was as a volunteer contributor to the translation and documentation project for WordPress in Japanese. Those efforts led to more relationships with people at Automattic—including Matt, who is now the company's CEO.
"At the time he was just going to places; if you asked, he'd say, 'Okay, if I have time, I'll go,'" says Naoko. So she invited him to Tokyo, and signed up to be his personal translator and guide when he said yes.
Naoko remembers the trip going awry—getting lost, losing her phone, and a few too many drinks—but when Matt got back home, he offered Naoko a job.
"My guess is that he realized that if he didn't speak that language, it was hard to get around and he needed someone to help. So it's like oh, the company will need someone, too, for the tool to be explained," says Naoko.
"I never thought I'd have a chance to work for Automattic," says Naoko, thinking back. "It was a dream company, because I loved WordPress so much!" (Besides making WordPress.com, Automattic also contributes significantly to the Open Source WordPress project.)
Embracing Multiculturalism: 6 Tips
As a Globalizer at Automattic, Naoko works with the incredibly diverse Automattic team, with its 1,600+ people spanning 88 countries and 108 languages, as well as with her own bench of volunteers, who speak at least 200 different languages.
"Day-to-day, I talk to people from 10 different countries," she says. "Though it's all done in English!"
Working with such a globally diversified team means understanding that everyone is at a different point in terms of communication efficacy. "We understand that speaking a second language is not always easy, so we use leeway for understanding someone, or empathizing if someone uses a word or phrase incorrectly, if the intention is good," she explains.
Here are 6 key things Naoko has found especially helpful when it comes to communicating across cultures:
- Lean into written and asynchronous communication. Automattic was a remote, fully distributed company long before the pandemic, and Naoko credits their non-live methods of communication with creating a comfortable environment for non-native speakers to thrive. "You have time to think about your mode, whether it's writing an email or communicating through Slack," she says.
- Use graphics. As someone with a background in graphic communication, Naoko is a big fan of using images, flowcharts, and other visuals to communicate information. "People don't read! If it's an image, they get the idea," she says. "That's especially true for polyglots, so I try to add images all the time."
- Think about your content's structure. Even beyond adding a graphic element, Naoko says she is regularly inspired to communicate better by applying her HTML background to her updates. "You know, writing HTML, you have the heading, body text, bullet points, images, and that's how I construct content," she says. "It's clear, precise writing."
- Look for tools that can help. It's way easier to communicate with a global team now than it was in the early 2000s, says Naoko, thanks to how significantly machine translation has evolved. "We have contributors who don't speak any English, who use Google Translate to communicate perfectly fine," she adds.
- Be patient. "Whatever the native language, people always misunderstand each other. Don't expect that they understand you, whoever they are, whether they are fluent or not. Always keep in mind that you have to explain yourself or your idea won't be communicated," says Naoko.
- Just try. Whether you're the manager of a team that hails from all over, or someone who's starting a new job in their second language, Naoko implores you to just put yourself out there and start to communicate, as that's the only way to learn. "Even though I wasn't fully comfortable, I always took opportunities, even when I wasn't ready. Over time, it gets better. If you keep thinking you're not ready, then you never will be," advises Naoko.
Naoko isn't planning on leaving Japan anytime soon.
"I have kids, and Japan is one of the safest countries; I like living in Japan," she says.
But she still has a deep interest in other countries and cultures.
Working at Automattic gives her a global life, even when she's based in one place.
"I feel like I get the best of both worlds," she says. "Being in my country, comfortable living my life, yet I can work with these people from all over the world, meeting people from different countries."
Those connections are extra-special because Naoko and her coworkers share their own kind of citizenship, she explains. "Whenever I meet someone new from Automattic, I somehow feel they are very similar. Lori, our HR person, says that it's like we get the most unique people from each class and put them in one room, and that room is Automattic."
"I never felt like I completely fit in, in Japanese culture or U.S. culture, but Automattic feels like good chaos."
Abena Saulka is obsessed with obscure apocalyptic movies. Especially ones that feature a zombie apocalypse.
"I wonder how I would survive in the world in an apocalyptic state. Would I survive? Do I have what it takes?" asks Abena.
She thinks about her career similarly. Abena wants to be a CTO or CIO one day. When asked where that goal comes from, she responds, "It was the highest, most impossible goal I could set, and like with apocalyptic movies, I want to know what my limit is," she says.
"I don't think I have found [my limits] yet. I have to keep pushing," she says, smiling.
We sat down with Abena to hear more about where her drive to test herself comes from, how she found her way to Pluralsight, and what she's looking forward to next.
Finding the Right Environments for Success
Abena grew up in Kumasi, Ghana, where she experienced the British education system.
"You don't question the teachers, you just listen to what the teachers have to say," she says.
It was that experience that made Abena interested in going to the United States for college.
"The US has a very good advertising campaign outside of the US about its educational system. I felt that in an American liberal arts education, you get to have an argument and conversation with the teacher. You get to have your opinion," she says.
Once at Goshen College in the U.S., she studied business, with an eventual goal of being an entrepreneur, inspired by her restaurateur mom. But after an early ecommerce venture went belly-up, Abena realized that she needed to understand how the web worked if she wanted to run a business.
"I had to understand web development to understand what had happened, what we did wrong," she says. "The person we'd hired, I couldn't make sense of whether [what they said] was the truth or not. I was lost, and I decided I had to learn it."
So she headed to Barnes and Noble to buy a copy of HTML for Dummies—"At the time, there was no online place you could go to learn!" she says—and started teaching herself, a few hours a day.
Her self-taught approach worked, and Abena was hired as a webmaster at an insurance company. "I was just very thrilled that I had learned something on my own and I got a job on that," she says. "And once I started working as a software engineer, it incorporated all the elements of business I liked. It had entrepreneurship, you could be a self-starter, you could be a director, and you could take ownership of the work you were doing."
But while that was true for the first decade or so of her career, Abena hit a ceiling.
She'd been continuously training herself through the Pluralsight subscription that her company offered. She'd take a new concept, like C#, and study for a certain amount of time each day, developing her own private projects to test her understanding of the concepts.
She had also been networking with her fellow software engineers. But when Abena wanted to try her hand at applying all her hard-won experience in a leadership role that went beyond having three direct reports, she couldn't get her managers to give her a shot.
"I hit a ceiling. I wanted to be able to drive the business decisions, but no one thought my opinion would matter. I was always told what to do, and that became stifling for me," explains Abena.
Driving Forward, With Belief
Abena decided to supplement her self-directed education with a Master of Science in Technology Management from Columbia University. When even those credentials didn't sway her managers' opinions, she decided to leave, and to find a company that would trust her to take on a leadership role.
It took three years.
Three long years of interviews, research, and more self-studying. In early interviews, Abena realized she wasn't showing enough of the soft skills a leader would need, from empathetic communication to managing at the right level. She read books, practiced, and cemented a new approach: instead of talking about everything she didn't have or hadn't done, she would focus on what the company needed, and talk about how she could meet those needs.
"When I did that, people overlooked the Ghanaian accent, the nervousness. They think, 'This person can actually contribute something to my company,'" she says.
She finally got the job she was looking for, and Abena chalks that success up to her never-wavering belief in herself. Despite the anxiety, the imposter syndrome, and the doubt, she kept coming back to her one belief: keep knocking.
"You have to be an advocate for yourself, and believe that it can happen. I'm an example that if you keep knocking on the door, somebody will open it. Somebody will see you," she says.
Three months into her new job, Abena's boss called her in.
"I said, 'Oh my god, I'm in trouble,'" she says. But her boss wasn't there to reprimand, but rather to commend: he'd heard reports from her team that they felt empowered, supported, and cared for.
The approach inspired by her liberal arts education—one that focused on helping her team help themselves, equipping them with critical thinking skills and always being an accessible sounding board—was succeeding.
Then Pluralsight came calling.
Coming Full Circle
It was actually a PowerToFly email that reached Abena, letting her know that her favorite training tool was looking to hire someone just like her.
"I had such a high respect for Pluralsight that initially I thought, 'I don't think they would want me,'" she says, remembering. A follow-up email from PowerToFly a week later made her feel the need to be brave: "I decided to go through the interview process as a test to defeat that self-doubt."
It ended up being another test that Abena crushed. When she got the job offer, she didn't quite believe it. "I was thinking in my head it was surreal. It was a much bigger role, with more people to manage and more responsibilities, and they thought I could do it. It didn't even cross my mind to turn them down."
She accepted, and now as Director of Software Engineering, Abena's role is to advocate for her developers and to help set and execute the company's future roadmap. It's giving her a chance to apply all of the leadership skills she learned at Columbia.
She's currently working on a project to integrate a new acquisition. "This is the kind of work I wanted to do. I get to see my ideas, and influence the decision-making; it's what I've been striving to do from day one," she says.
"Now I'm part of the company on the inside. I know what it feels like to be a Pluralsight customer. I'm here to advocate for the customer," she says. "Learning is revolutionary. It's such a barrier to so many things."
"To be part of a company that values that, sees that, is very inspiring. It's the difference between being at a company that's just giving you a paycheck and being at a company that really is doing something substantial," says Abena. "It's really satisfying."
Millions of U.S. employees have said that this year: 4 million in April 2021, 3.6 million in May, and another million in June, causing labor shortages across industries and increasing pressure on policymakers and business owners alike to embrace flexibility, increase wages, and improve working conditions.
And while the news has mostly focused on covering the impact of this employee exodus—aptly named the Great Resignation—on blue-collar industries like food services and entertainment, the wave of voluntary employee exits is hitting offices, too. In June alone, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industries with the most employees quitting were professional and business services, durable goods manufacturing, and local government, respectively.
We're all sick of the term "unprecedented." But the labor market is doing something it truly has never done before, and describing it as "unprecedented" feels accurate.
In this three-part report, we look at what's happening—and why.
- Part one: key stats on the current labor market
- Part two: exclusive findings from our focus group of working professionals across industries who have left or are planning to leave their jobs
- Part three: recommendations on what you, as an employer, can do to attract new employees and retain the ones you have
Download the full report here or check out some of the highlights below:
The Great Resignation of 2021: Setting the Stage
When the pandemic first hit in early 2020, it uprooted every aspect of life. How we work, how we shop, how we relax, how we gather—there was a "new normal" for everything.
As it turns out, not everyone is ready to go back to the way things were before.
The pandemic has directly impacted so many people. Many lost loved ones to COVID-19. Others got sick themselves, perhaps dealing with the impacts of long COVID. Still others found themselves juggling unpaid caretaking with a full-time job, with no help from shut-down childcare facilities. People were laid off, and exposed to the virus at work, and unable to work due to home responsibilities.
And even people who were lucky to not be directly impacted by COVID still felt its effects: they realized life is short, and that they should not spend the majority of their working hours doing something they hate; or they worked from home for over a year and found that they could be just as productive without ever going into an office.
- While the unemployment rate declined in July, settling in at 5.4%, it's still considerably higher than it was pre-pandemic: last February's was 3.5%, per the BLS
- That number is probably even higher, around 8.1%, says Heidi Shierholz, director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, since women and people of color are less likely to be counted in official unemployment numbers
- Quitters made up 69% of total separations in June—the rest were layoffs, firings, and retirements
- The decline in unemployment was driven mostly by job gains in leisure and hospitality, especially food services and drinking, which are sectors vulnerable to changing pandemic regulations as the delta variant surges
There are about 1 million more job openings than people looking for work, says a CNBC report
Stories of the Great Resignation: Why Employees Left
We didn't want to cover the Great Resignation by only focusing on the numbers, because the numbers only tell part of the story.
We wanted to bring real experiences to the forefront. Real people, with real families, who make up those statistics you just read about.
So we pulled together a focus group of people who have left the workforce for various reasons to help humanize what the Great Resignation looks like on the ground.
We also asked them how their employers could've kept them from leaving in the first place.
- Everyone we talked to either left their job in the last six months or are planning to do so in the next 1-2 months
- Their reasons differed, though fell into three main buckets:
- COVID impacted their work directly (i.e. they didn't feel safe going into the office as required)
- COVID accelerated issues they already struggled with (i.e. not being well-paid, and then facing pay cuts)
- COVID opened their eyes to new issues they didn't realize they were struggling with (i.e. not being passionate about what they spend the majority of their day doing)
- Many people left work to pursue a self-directed or freelance career (which is a real trend, but also probably overrepresented in our focus group, since we asked people to self-select into it). In our group, their pursuits include:
- Publishing a children's book
- Launching a paint company
- Starting a digital marketing agency
- Developing AI tools
- Opening a financial services agency
- Becoming a presentation designer
Click here to read their stories and our recommendations for retaining top talent.