Reinventions: Jessi Shakarian
Reinventions profiles people who've made big pivots. This is Jessi Shakarian, who transitioned from medical lab tech to content strategist and apprentice information architect in pandemic times, with a software engineering detour in between. Plus, she knows a little something about chess.
What were you before?
Before the pandemic, I was in school for my next career move, going into my second degree to be a medical lab technician after being a receptionist at a veterinary clinic. This was my second big career move. I was two classes and rotations shy of graduation when the pandemic hit. I decided to drop out and move home. It was a bit of a relief to drop out, because I realized medicine wasn't for me.
What triggered your reinvention(s)?
Once I moved home last June, I was in a weird spot. I was overqualified to work in a lab at entry level, but since I hadn't finished my program, nor been able to get my license, I couldn't get a technician job. I wasn't sure what to do and was tired of being in school.
I got a BA, initially with the anticipation of teaching, and graduated at 22 as the Great Recession started in 2010. This new situation felt like déjà vu, except with more student loan debt, and now I'm in my 30s. I had to do something, but I did not want to be a receptionist anymore.
What did the first steps look like?
My local community college had an in-depth career assessment, so I started there. Maybe they'd see something I didn't. I got a 100 percent match with programming, something I really wasn't expecting. But since none of this stuff—like the move home—was planned, why not look into it? That summer, I started learning how to code. I ended up finding a free bootcamp for people affected by the pandemic that started in October, so I signed up for that.
By late fall, I started the bootcamp, and realized that, while I enjoyed the community, I wasn't sure I loved coding. But it was so thrilling to realize I had a real skill I could rely on, and could call myself a developer. If I want to return to coding one day, that door is always open to me. I am forever grateful for that.
What was one hard obstacle to overcome?
The realization that being a developer wasn't for me, but that I really enjoyed the tech industry, was difficult to wrestle with. I wasn't sure I wanted to start from scratch in order to be a software engineer. I wanted to leverage my skills to advance a bit more. But I wasn't sure how to do that, or what it meant; tech is so huge. It felt like two steps forward, one step back, and it mentally set me back.
I started taking freelance clients as a developer around December 2020. It was really the only way to find out what I liked or didn't. In my 20s, I was a freelance writer and editor, so I added that to my skills. I started offering content strategy—writing site copy, but more strategic—on top of building a site. The client work I started getting had me walking through their sites from beginning to end. It was a crash course in understanding how the user experience (UX) fits into site building, and seeing the process through.
That's when I realized that I was so close. I really enjoyed doing more user experience work—content strategy, figuring out how a website should be laid out. But dev work helped give me a more well-rounded understanding. Once I figured out that I only needed to sidestep slightly, I was off to the races.
What was easier than you thought?
Networking. This was a really big surprise because I normally consider myself a fairly introverted, shy person. However, this might just be because of the circumstances of Covid; most of my networking happens through Twitter and Discord. Virtual meetings have been easier to dip my toe into, giving me confidence in a new field. Now I'm just excited to meet more people.
I was also relearning how to trust my gut. Sometime before Covid, when I was trying to make it as a medical lab technician, I felt like I needed to find the fastest way to a stable career. But at some point, I started ignoring the little voice we all have, just focused on the end goal.
Once I started getting into freelancing at the end of 2020, I began to remember that I do well when I go with my instinct, and it's more important to be myself and look at the whole journey. Even if I go against the current, I gotta trust myself. I know what's best for me. Once I did that, it made the networking easier too. What kind of relationships do I want to build in this reinvention? What do I want people to know about me? What kind of work do I want to do that reflects the best I can be?
What's something you learned along the way that other people, hoping to do something similar, should know?
Follow your passion and be vocal about it. If no one is doing what you're interested in, that's OK. Preferred, even. There's no one else like you, and it's important to take ownership of your unique perspective or style. That thing you love, or how you look at the world ... that's what people will notice.
You can't fake passion. And when people see it, it's contagious. It doesn't matter if they don't know a lot about your passion, or your hobby. Just find a way to share it—blog about it, livestream, make a podcast, whatever. It doesn't have to be polished. Just let people know what you're making on Twitter. Eventually, people interested in the same things will find you.
The tech industry is so huge, there is a place for you. Come join us.
Did anyone or anything inspire you along the way?
So many people! I wouldn't be here without mentors who believe in me. The communities at Virtual Coffee and 100Devs bootcamp. They say it's hard to make friends in your 30s, but in this career shift, I've made friends for life.
What has this fundamentally changed for you?
Everything. Taking this big leap helped me feel like I have found myself and my confidence as someone going through their umpteenth career change. Every detour helped me get here.
Do you think you could go back/do you want to?
No way. This is so much better than the life I would have settled for. I love that this path challenges me in the best way possible.
Tell us your reinvention song.
"Watch Me While I Bloom," Hayley Williams.
How would you define yourself now?
I am a freelance content strategist and information architect apprentice at LA DIA Design in Los Angeles. I write about chess and UX/design for both UX and chess publications. I'm currently working on a book about chess and UX.