How to map your next career move

About 9 months after I graduated from university I moved to London.

When I wasn’t watching World Cup games on TV during that boiling hot June of 2006, I went to interview for what would be the first ‘proper’ job of my career.

Most of the interviews were at companies that sounded really cutting-edge and innovative, but in truth I couldn’t really tell exactly what they did.

Mobile WAP marketing, ecommerce analytics, hypermedia experience designers; these were all new terms to me. I’d never heard them uttered during my 3 university years where we did modules in everything from web programming to TV production and motion graphics. Sometimes these titles and concepts began to connect and made sense to me, before slipping away again just as quickly as they arrived. I knew I wanted to do digital but what did that mean exactly?

I found myself bumbling and stumbling through interviews, and although I somehow got a couple of offers, my instincts told me something didn’t feel quite right so I continued my search.

After a pretty long slog I got offered the chance to interview at an advertising agency for a role as a Digital Producer. Again, I didn’t exactly know what this meant but after that first interview something just clicked in my mind; this felt more like it. It was a relief to find that that right fit, but for one question lingered:

Why did it take so long to find a role I was well-aligned to?

Looking back now, my best answer is the most obvious one: I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.

I’d say this is pretty normal at 22, and if you really do know exactly what you want to do by this age you’ve either done extremely well or you haven’t had a wide enough range of experiences yet (in which case, sample some more)

Digging one level deeper into why I took a while to get going, the underlying reason for my confusion was I had very little grasp of the industry landscape and how the companies, niches and sub-sectors really worked and intersected.

The process I went through that first summer as well as a couple more similar experiences in subsequent years taught me the value of one key asset to have on hand when seeking a new role, especially when it’s your first in that industry.

The map

When I was about 12, at an age where the cuttings from football magazines had gone but the posters for electronic music events had not yet appeared, my bedroom wall was covered by maps of the London Underground (Yeah, I know…)

Later, this evolved into an interest in data visualisations and infographics too, but the thing I’ve always loved most is a map.

Maps come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and there are tons for creating mental models, but the one that I believe is most useful to getting your next job is a simple taxonomy of the industry you’re exploring.

In recent years I’ve interviewed a lot of people for entry-level roles in organisations, and the most common advice I have for them is to make themselves a map. By understanding the simple flows of knowledge, money, data and value via a simple visual, the chances of being able to grasps the fundamental inner workings of a company or industry increase dramatically. This is good for you, and good for your employer or client.

This guide is intending mainly for people finding their way into the world of work for the very first time – however I still use the technique regularly when I’m trying to understand something new, and I have a bit of grey in my hair now 🙂

 

How to make your map

There are lots of industry taxonomies available for free online. I suggest getting a couple and re-drawing them to your needs on a few big sheets of paper.

You’ll probably have lots of gaps — that’s ok, you can fill them in later as you learn more. Here are the basic steps to take.

Map 1: The widescreen view

  1. Draw out the key sub-sectors you already know about (i.e. for Photography, a key sub-sector would be a Camera Manufacturer)
  2. Add the names of the major players in each sub-sector
  3. Join the dots. Draw lines between the various areas you’ve sketched out; who provides goods and services to who, which companies are connected directly to end customers and who controls the various parts of the value chain. Use dotted lines where you have a hunch but aren’t sure, or a different colour for a connection that could happen in the future. You’ve now got some flows you can look at.
  4. Do some further reading and research to learn the basics of how 2 or 3 of these flows work – if in doubt follow the money
  5. Find someone who will listen to you briefly explain how a couple of typical examples work from start to finish, including the weird kinks or problems that happen along the way. The person you speak with should have zero specialist knowledge of the sector and be able to grasp your explanation without asking more than a couple of basic questions. Redraw your map for them too.
  6. Did they get it? Good!

 

Map 2: Time to starting your modelling career

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No, not that kind of modelling (unless you’re getting into the fashion business)

  1. Take map 1, and add in the names of people you know, or know about, who are connected to companies in the space
  2. By now your map could be a bit hectic – if so grab a particular flow or series of connections and blow them up onto a new sheet. Choose areas where you possess skills, what you’re good at, and/or find interesting (a decent guide for this is looking at areas that are a little bit niche or nascent now but you think are getting more popular – an example in the audio industry could be Artist-branded voice assistant apps)
  3. Look at the people you’ve listed and see if any of them are connected to the intersecting points of interest you’ve identified. Hopefully you’ve got a few of them covering various points.
  4. Put yourself in their shoes – what are they doing each day? Who’s on their team?Which technologies are they using? Who are their company selling to? Where’s the pressure coming from? You’ll make a few assumptions here, but for now that’s fine.
  5. Run this for a few people and match it back against your skills and interests. You should see at least a couple of commonalities. If not, look at another flow, company or person.
  6. These common points are a good place for you to start digging deeper: it could be designing training programs for semi-pro eSports players, managing small teams of AR developers, or importing cacao snacks from the US to Europe. Make another little map of this if you want to.
  7. Optional: Depending on where you’re at you in your journey you may want to make contact with some of the people you’ve been modelling. If you don’t know them, have a look at their LinkedIn profile, Twitter or personal website if they have one and see what else you may have in common. You may be surprised – I’ve found Crystal Palace fans in the most unlikely of places.
  8. Writing emails asking for advice are a whole other subject (there are lots of posts online about this), but simply: briefly explain who you are, why you’re interested in the industry/area, and frame one key question with what you’ve learnt from your map to prove your genuine interest and curiosity in the space, and in particular a commonality you discovered. Hopefully you’ll get a useful response and some more information to keep building your map.

 

Whether you’re actively looking for a role or just exploring, this simple mapping technique should provide you with a quick, incisive insight into an industry or area you’re interested in, enable you to understand the fundamentals of how things work, and give you a visual reference you can use repeatedly, adding more detail each time.

There’s lot more to mapping than I’ve written about here, and it may well form the subject of a future post.

In the meantime if you want to chat more about the value of the map or how to build your own then drop me a line.

 

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