How to Change Specialties Without Taking a Career Step Backwards

If you’ve worked hard to land a senior-level role (and higher compensation), you’re no doubt worried that you’ll have to give that up if you decide to switch specialties. However, mastering a new specialty not only helps you stay relevant, but gives you the chance to make your mark in cutting-edge arenas such as artificial intelligence (A.I.), robotic process automation, data science, blockchain and more. 

It’s quite the conundrum, especially when companies make it clear that they expect experienced technologists to restart at the bottom of the pay grade when transitioning to a new specialty. To help you avoid this fate, we asked several experts to share their firsthand experiences and tips. 

Operate at a Level that Matches Your Role

Simply adding skills to your toolbox is not enough to justify a lateral move with the same pay and title when switching specialties. You must show the organization that you have what it takes to continue operating at a high level while learning new knowledge or skills. How?

Reinforce your position as a problem-solver, advised Al Parvar, who kept his career moving forward while expanding into new areas and currently serves as chief architect for Aurotech Corp. “They can always bring in a more junior person to write code,” he explained. “Delivering solutions makes you more valuable.”

Mahesh M. Thakur, executive coach and CEO of MaheshMThakur.com, agrees. “Demonstrate an understanding of why this area of specialization exists, the opportunities it presents to the company and the risks,” he advised. Then, articulate a business strategy to drive growth or market expansion by speeding up implementation or achieving cost-reductions to make your case stronger.

Stay Ahead of the Curve

Simply put, once everyone starts jumping into a specialty and your skills become commodities, it’s easier for a company to hire a new grad or train a junior staff member and pay them less money. 

Choosing a specialty is often based on passion, interest and the desire for growth—but you should also consider its maturity, the timing and market demand. Focusing on new and emerging technologies when selecting a specialty boosts your negotiating power and improves your odds of getting what you want. For example, many companies are increasingly interested in developers and engineers who have working knowledge of machine learning technologies

Create a Personal Learning Plan

Changing specialties without taking a step backwards often comes down to one thing: transferable skills. For instance, Thakur has helped senior technologists navigate transitions from software development to A.I. and data engineering by making an inventory of their core competencies that are important to their new job and organization. 

Of course, you also need to offer proof of newly acquired skills, either through proof-of-concept projects and/or earning a certification to maintain your current status. “I want to see evidence that you’ve made an effort to get up to speed on your own,” noted Dr. Helen Campbell, director of Digital Development for Arup. “For example, if you want to focus on A.I. and ML development, then I would hope that you’ve tried out Amazon SageMaker or Microsoft’s Azure Machine Learning Studio.

Be up-front about what you know and what you need to learn by articulating your commitment to continuous learning and timeline for closing critical gaps. According to Thakur, if you can meet 60 percent of the requirements as an internal candidate or 75 percent as an external candidate for any job in a high-demand specialty, you can make quite a persuasive case for maintaining your salary.

However, if you stay at the same salary and are moving into a specialty that offers premium pay, ask for a performance review and the opportunity to renegotiate after six months, when you get up-to-speed.

Have a Strategy

If you transition within your current organization, you stand a better chance of maintaining your salary, especially if your new job falls within the same pay scale or grade, noted Sheekha Singh, senior software development engineer in test (SDET) for Publicis Sapient Canada, career columnist and advisor.

“If the new job falls in the same grade, there’s no way you should accept a pay cut,” she said. Most companies are at least willing to match salaries in specialized fields with strong demand. If you must compromise on something, she added, your best option is to give up your job title, at least temporarily.

However, if an internal transfer isn’t possible or your employer insists on a salary cut, try looking for a position in a startup or a small company with a less formal organizational structure. A new company may also let you keep your salary if you start out as a contractor. Once you have experience, you can convert to full-time or jump back into the market.

Everyone deserves a chance to show his or her potential. It just takes a certain amount of initiative and a supportive employer to change specialties without taking a step backwards.